Have you established a memorial? A sacred place in your heart?

Four Roadside Memorials

Roadside memorials take many forms. (Photos for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Memorial Day commemorates those who died while serving in our armed forces—but this special day also inevitably reminds us of other losses we’ve experienced. It’s healthy to pause and ponder the way we make sacred room for these memories.

One half-mile south of the Occoquan River on I-95 in Virginia, one of the busiest corridors in our nation, is a place lodged in my memory and heart. The roadway is different now. What was then four lanes, divided by a grassy hill, has become eight lanes of concrete, ramps, guard rails and, of course, speeding cars and trucks.

Decades ago, I was the founding pastor of a new church in a planned community adjacent to I-95. Four of us in that community—three clergy and one paid fireman—did most of the fire and rescue runs during the daylight hours from Volunteer Fire Co. 10. Many of our calls were in response to accidents on I-95. To this day, I never drive that highway without remembering the spot of two runs we made.

One was filled with sadness—one with joy.

A doctor and his wife had recently bought a Winnebago Camper. She and her teenage son were driving north on I-95 in the camper while her husband followed in another car. On a curve over a steep hill, she lost control and the camper toppled over the guardrail and down the hill, bursting into flames. A young marine jumped from his car and pulled the burned son to safety but was not able to save his mother. Our arrival on the scene was to provide transportation of the victims and support for the father who was crumpled in shock and sadness. The son was flown to a burn-trauma center. There are no markers, and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the trauma and sadness of a family’s instant transformation.

There is a memorial in my heart for the family as well as for the caregivers, the first responders, who served them well.

And, then the other memory follows.

It had not rained for three weeks in late August and the road had developed a film of oil. During a sudden rain storm, a north-bound 18-wheeler hydroplaned and the truck toppled with its wheels pointing north and the whole vehicle lay horizontal across all lanes.

One more amazing detail. A Ford Mustang had slid under the truck’s trailer as it toppled, with only the hood sticking out between the wheels. The rest of the car was crumpled under the trailer. When rescue teams arrived, we assumed no one was alive in the Mustang. Someone crawled under the trailer and tapped on the door of the crushed car.

Someone tapped back! Amazing! How to get to them? The rear trailer door was opened to reveal a full load of green tomatoes. Folks poured out of the blocked cars and began unloading the tomatoes onto the median strip. Special saws cut out the side of the trailer, the top was lifted off the Mustang, and four adults and two children, all pocked from broken glass, emerged from the vehicle.

I cried. What a miracle. There are no markers and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the joy of that miraculous moment.

Across our land are countless markers left by families and friends to remember loved ones lost in traffic accidents. Roadside shrines of all descriptions dot the landscape as memorials, but for many, like myself, the memorial is carried in our minds and hearts—and the site is never passed without a moment of remembrance.

I write this to lift up each of our sacred moments of remembrance and to also express gratitude to the caregiver and first responders, be they professional or volunteer.

Memorial Day is a fitting occasion to remember those who died in our armed forces. If you have a chance to speak to a veteran this weekend about brothers or sisters lost in battle—their stories are likely to be quite specific about the location of the loss. By acknowledging the person and place—by remembering and sharing our stories like this—we are setting aside sacred space in our hearts.

THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT is a pastoral counselor with 30 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He also is one of ReadTheSpirit’s most popular columnists on a wide range of issues. Learn more about his books in our bookstore.

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Categories: CaregivingHolidays

MSU ‘Bias Busters’ sort out the mysterious realm of religion

Front cover MSU guide 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

CLICK this cover to visit our Bookstore and learn about ordering your copy.

By JOE GRIMM

The MSU Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence embarks on a new direction this week: We’re heading into the realm of religion.

The series, from the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Journalism, started in 2013 with 100 questions and answers to everyday questions about several groups. There are now guides for Indian Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, East Asian cultures, Arab Americans, Native Americans and, to help international guests, Americans.

Why did our MSU team decide to start this new series on religious minorities? Because such guides are needed by so many men and women, these days. Americans in countless neighborhoods and professions need to know how to interact with our neighbors and co-workers from minority faiths and cultures.

Why did we start this new series with Muslims? Because these men, women and children face the greatest misunderstandings right now, according to nationwide studies.

Recently, Pew researchers reported that prejudice against Muslim Americans is “rampant among the U.S. public.” The Pew team added: “We have a long way to go in dispelling prejudice against Muslims. Muslims were the group rated most negatively of all religious groups.”

Can our guide books really make a difference? Yes!

Here’s the goal of our overall series of 100 Questions & Answers guides: We answer the questions that real people ask every day wherever Americans gather. We answer the questions that no one else is answering in such a convenient and authoritative form. We have blue-ribbon readers across the country advise us as we answer these questions for readers—so you can trust what we’re telling you in these pages.

In your hands, these guides will help you get to know co-workers, neighbors or fellow students in your school. And that process of getting to know each other, concludes the Pew team, is the way to build healthier communities.

The Pew team used a thermometer chart to show Americans’ relatively warm vs. chilly attitudes toward minorities. The team’s report concludes: “Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group. Those who say they know someone who is Jewish, for example, give Jews an average thermometer rating of 69, compared with a rating of 55 among those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish. Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist. Similarly, Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.”

WHAT QUESTIONS DO WE ANSWER?

MSU Bias Busters Class works on 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

PHOTOS OF THE MSU BIAS BUSTERS: TOP PHOTO shows an MSU editing circle—clockwise from front: Arielle Rembert, Julia Gorman, Sarah King, Cheyenne Yost, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan and Kate Kerbrat. MIDDLE PHOTO shows our editors Amanda Cowherd and Kyle Koehler collaborating on the new guide. BOTTOM PHOTO shows class members—front from left: Lia Kamana, Stacy Cornwell, Arielle Rembert and Julia Gorman. Second row, from left: Kate Kerbrat, Amanda Cowherd, Kyle Koehler, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan, Cheyenne Yost and Sarah King.

The full title of our newest book, as listed on Amazon, is 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans with a Guide to Islamic Holidays: Basic facts about the culture, customs, language, religion, origins and politics of American Muslims.

These guides are designed to answer the everyday questions that people wonder about but might not know how to ask. The Muslim-American guide answers:

* What does Islam say about Jesus?
* What does the Quran say about peace and violence?
* What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?
* Which countries are predominantly Shia and Sunni?
* Do Muslims believe in heaven and an afterlife?
* Do Muslims believe that non-Muslims are going to hell?
* Is the Nation of Islam the same as Islam?
* Are honor killings a part of Islamic teaching?
* What does Islam say about images of God?
* Do women who wear the hijab play sports or swim?

The guide’s Foreword is by John L. Esposito, professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of the popular book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.

Esposito wrote, “The Muslims of America are far from monolithic in their composition and in their attitudes and practices. They are a mosaic of many ethnic, racial and national groups. As a result, significant differences exist in their community as well as in their responses to their encounter with the dominant religious and cultural paradigm of American society.”

Esposito was one of 20 experts who helped MSU students in one way or another through the creation of our new guide. The students began by interviewing Muslims, and consulting with our experts, to determine the 100 commonly asked questions we would answer in this book. Then, the students researched the answers and, once again, consulted with our experts to verify the entire guide.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE …

Another new feature in this new book is a nine-page guide to Islamic holidays. Written by Read the Spirit’s Holidays & Festivals expert Stephanie Fenton, it explains their timing, meaning and significance.

The guide also has a recording with American Muslims pronouncing Arabic words such as Muslim, Islam and Allah. Muslims told students that these are often mispronounced and the audio addresses that. (Visit the ReadTheSpirit bookstore now to learn how to order your copy of this inexpensive new book. When you get your copy, the first thing you’ll want to do is listen to this helpful audio track. In most e-readers, the audio plays within the digital book; in the print edition, a QR code lets you click on that page—and play the audio on your smart phone.)

The series is evolving and becoming more elaborate.

The next guide will focus on Jewish Americans and is expected to have videos.

CARE TO READ MORE?

JOE GRIMM is visiting editor in the Michigan State University School of Journalism. In addition to the MSU series, Joe has written two books about careers in media. You can learn about all of Joe’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

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Categories: HolidaysJewishMuslimPeacemaking

Season of Gratitude: An inclusive celebration of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Season of Gratitude in Belfast MaineBy DUNCAN NEWCOMER

Thanksgiving? A feminist plot foisted on President Lincoln by the prominent editor Sarah Hale to augment Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July as national holidays for American unity?

Thanksgiving? An Anglo-Protestant tradition from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony as the dominant national narrative?

Thanksgiving? A Judeo-Christian community event based on the liturgies of harvest blessing and Holy Communion?

Thanksgiving? An American Christian holiday, along with Christmas and Easter, defining our religious heritage and identity?

Thanksgiving? A somewhat meaningful pause for Extreme Travel between the growing outlay of money for a macabre Halloween and the extravaganza of Christmas shopping?

Here in Belfast, Maine, nearly 7,000 of us cling to the mid-coastal Penobscot Bay. As we pause to ponder the November holiday, we probably define ourselves a little bit by all of the above.

But the local minister’s association decided this year not to have a typical ecumenical worship-and-music service for Thanksgiving. Each church, we thought, could have its own meaningful gathering, but the wider community is being invited, the Sunday before Thanksgiving, to a Season of Gratitude afternoon potluck supper at the local high school gym.

We might draw 60; we might welcome 200. We’re trying this for the first time in Belfast. We were inspired by the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit initiative from last year. And, we decided to reach out to people who we feel are a part of our community—but we never really see, much less share a common meal.

Inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s call for national unity, not necessarily in churches, we are talking with churches who aren’t usually involved in ecumenical dialogue, community service organizations and half-way houses, Buddhist meditation groups, ethnic minority fisherman, and just plain secular people.

Humility, gratitude, shared life, stories, food and presence. That’s our goal.

Lincoln would often make a meal of a single potato or an apple. We will feast more, and the local Co Op and grocery store have made generous contributions. Lincoln also said that even in hard times, like the Civil War, the Most High God does wondrous things, and we also need to be penitential of our national perversities. That’s what he tried to do on that first annual Thanksgiving 151 years ago.

We’ll let you know how it goes.

CARE TO READ MORE?

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Categories: Church GrowthHolidaysPeacemaking

Marcia Falk interview on ‘The Days Between’

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

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

Whatever your faith and whatever the season, Marcia Falk has blessings, poems and spiritual guidance to help you through a time of reflection and renewal. Her new book is called, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a series of reflections, readings, blessings and prayers appropriate to each day from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. But this book also is full of timeless spiritual wisdom, eloquently signaled in these concise lines. Consider this eight-line reading that Falk calls “Turning the Heart.”

Slow spin of earth
against sky—

imperceptible yet
making the days.

One stone tossed
into the current,

and the river, ever-
so-slightly, rising.

.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcia Falk. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH MARCIA FALK ABOUT ‘THE DAYS BETWEEN’

DAVID: Your website, MarciaFalk.com, describes you as “Poet, Painter, Judaic Scholar.” We will include a photo of your book’s front cover, which features your watercolor-and-pencil work, called “Gilead Apples.” Your career is so varied. How do you describe your overall body of work to audiences, when you tour and talk about your new book?

Marcia Falk, photo used with author's permission.

Marcia Falk, photo used with author’s permission.

MARCIA: I would say that I am a creative artist, a poet and a translator with a strong scholarly background in the work I do. I’ve brought together the literary world and the world of scholarship in my work interpreting and recreating Jewish liturgy from a non-hierarchical perspective. I don’t just sit down and write liturgy. Everything I do is based in the tradition.

DAVID: Evidence of your very thoughtful process is that your books take many years to complete. Probably your most famous book—at least one that has been on my own reference shelf for many years—is your rendering of The Song of Songs.

MARCIA: That has been in print for almost four decades and it has migrated through a number of publishers over the years. It is available today from Brandeis University Press. I began that work when I was a graduate student in English and comparative literature at Stanford, independent studies in three different areas at once: I was in a poetry translation workshop and I was doing an independent study in American poets and then—and this is the most important thing—I had decided to go back and study the original Hebrew Song of Songs, which of course I had known since childhood in my Jewish background.

I remembered The Song of Songs as very musical and lyrical and I already loved the book but I had never studied it. It is an extremely different book linguistically. I worked with a Bible scholar, sitting together and reading this book. I researched every word and phrase and never thought about translating it. I was just absorbing the book. And then one night my translation workshop had an evening when we were sharing our work. When my turn came, I said, “I don’t have anything to show. I’ve spent all my time studying this wonderful book and it’s completely taken over my life.” I began to talk about The Song of Songs and how they couldn’t understand this aspect of it from the King James Version or they would miss this aspect in the Revised Standard Version. I was talking to them about what’s in the original Hebrew.

That’s when I realized that I really should translate this book that had become such a big part of my life. And, that took me years. I went to Israel. I wanted to study at the feet of the great Bible scholars there. I wanted their approval that I was on the right track. Eventually my translation became my doctoral dissertation, the translation accompanied by a commentary.

DAVID: That’s a terrific story because it conveys to our readers the great care and the long years you spend on your work. Let’s point out that I’m certainly not alone in praising The Song of Songs. A very long list of great literary lights have praised that book, including Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote about your book, “I thought until now that the Song of Songs could not be translated better than the King James Version. Marcia Falk really managed to do an exceptional poetic job. She has great power in her language.”

So, then, leaping forward to the mid 1990s, you produced the big Book of Blessings.

MARCIA: I actually began writing that book in 1983. It was a 13-year project; The Book of Blessings finally came out in 1996. That book is a recreation of prayer for Shabbat, the Sabbath, and for weekdays. My impetus for doing that book was a deep frustration with the patriarchal focus of traditional prayer that was so unsatisfying to the point of being painful for many Jewish women and, it turns out, many Jewish men as well. When it was published, that book created a pretty big stir in the Jewish world.

Then, in 1996, I thought I would dive right into the next volume, which would be for the high holiday season, because that is the time of year when more Jews enter the synagogue than at any other time of year. But The Days Between, which just was published, took another 18 years.

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion and cross-cultural issues for 40 years now and I am fascinated by this thoughtful, long journey represented in your work. There is a great deal that evolves and matures in us as we go through the years. I talked about this issue, this spring, with the writer Barbara Brown Taylor and asked her why five years had passed between books.

Barbara laughed at that and said: “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

MARCIA: There are many reasons it took me so many years: raising a child, needing to make a living as a professor and many other things. But the main reason was that this needed to evolve in my mind and heart. I needed to really grapple with what this very difficult liturgy was all about. The themes of the high holidays are extremely profound and they are at the core of all of human endeavor.

It took this many years to complete, really, because I needed to live long enough in the world—and needed all of the experiences that come with birth and grief and growth and renewal and all the things that make up a human life through those years. I needed to grow through all of that. My living was seeping into my poetry all that time.

DAVID: I hope that readers of this interview understand that, while your book is Jewish and ideal for Jewish readers, this book also can be appreciated as an inspiring and spiritually challenging reader for non-Jews as well. As I was preparing for our interview, Marcia, I was also balancing hours of visiting my father in hospice care. He’s at the very end of his long life, now, and I found many passages in your book just electrifying.

Let me read one prose passage from the opening of the book that really helped me in my own reflections right now. You write: “Positioned between dawn and dusk, dusk and dawn, we live between past and future because we cannot live in them; we cannot act in them or change their outcomes. In this sense, past and future don’t exist for us: only the time between them—the present time—exists.” And then you continue a few lines later: “How do we live with the knowledge not just of our own mortality but of the truth that we cannot hold on to anything? How do we keep from succumbing to despair?”

I underlined those lines and turned down the corner of that page. That summarizes, so eloquently, the spiritual challenge we all face at times of major life transitions. It certainly was very helpful to me in the midst of hospice care with my Dad. I read those lines aloud to him.

MARCIA: To me, that’s the best reward as an author—to hear that kind of response from a reader. I should also mention that it’s been very interesting to me that, wherever I speak about this book, hospice workers in particular come up to me and I see how engaged they are. I feel very gratified that the book is of use to those in hospice. I think that hospice workers are doing something extremely important in our world world.

DAVID: I think it speaks, even more broadly, about how these timeless truths and insights—these blessings and prayers—can touch many lives whatever one’s faith might be. So, let me close our interview by asking: What do you hope general readers will take away from reading your book?

MARCIA: For my Jewish readers, I hope I’m bringing a new entry into Judaism. I also hope it will reveal something for non-Jewish readers as well. I hope it touches people and enriches their paths through life. We’re all human beings and we’re all in this together.

In this book, I am dealing with big themes that speak to and for all of us. Of course, I’m doing this in Jewish language and metaphor—but ultimately for any religion or tradition to meaningful, it has to be dealing with the universals of human life. No religion works unless it is really talking to the whole community of humanity.

(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 InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysJewish

Great reading for the Lenten season

CLICK THIS GRAPHIC to visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

CLICK THIS GRAPHIC to visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

2 billion Christians around the world are in the midst of Lent, the season of prayerful reflection that leads to Easter. Whether you are a part of the Eastern Orthodox Great Lent, or the Western Lenten season, you’ve got more than a month—until Easter Sunday on April 20—to ponder your spiritual direction.

ReadTheSpirit highly recommends dozens of books, each year, from a wide range of authors and publishing houses. Today, though, we are asking our readers to help support ReadTheSpirit Books—our own circle of authors. Here are six great choices for Lenten reading …

OUR LENT

ReadTheSpirit’s founding editor David Crumm wrote this popular 40-day Lenten devotional several years ago—and we have heard from individuals, from small groups and from entire congregations who have enjoyed this book. It’s now in an updated Second Edition, available in our bookstore (where we provide easy links to buy our books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online retailers). In each of the 40 chapters, David takes a portion of the Gospel stories about Jesus’s final days—then,  he chooses an object in that day’s Bible passage that connects Jesus’s life with our contemporary world. In the course of these 40 days, you’ll meet everyone from John Lennon and poet Joesph Brodsky to the Cat in the Hat and the Lord of the Rings.

FLAVORS OF FAITH

Sharing food is a cornerstone of virtually every faith on the planet. That’s why ReadTheSpirit online magazine includes our Feed The Spirit department with weekly stories and recipes. Our first major book on the connections between faith and food is Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. Chapters include the importance of food in strengthening American communities, plus a recipe from a beloved American poet, and the story of pretzels as both a symbol of prayer and an annual reminder of Lent—and so much more.

BLESSED … PEACEMAKERS

Our Interfaith Peacemakers department is a great place to sample chapters from Daniel Buttry’s popular books, especially his latest: Blessed Are the Peacemakers. In these pages, you will meet more than 100 heroes, but most of them are not the kind of heroes our culture celebrates for muscle, beauty and wealth. These are peacemakers—and the world needs to hear their stories now more than ever.

GUIDE FOR CAREGIVERS

Today, you’ll find a fresh sample of the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt’s writing in our We Are Caregivers department. Ben also appears in the website of the Day1 radio network. His practical, compassionate wisdom has attracted readers nationwide. This Lenten season, remember that 1 in 3 American households includes a caregiver. Buy this book for yourself or for a caregiver you care about. Here is Ben’s ReadTheSpirit bookstore page.

GOD SIGNS

Every week, author and journalist Suzy Farbman writes stories about the signs of God’s goodness that often surprise us—and may come into our lives in many forms. There’s not a better theme for the Lenten season! In her book, God Signs: Health, Hope and Miracles, My Journey to Recovery, Suzy invites readers along on a heart-opening journey through the many God Signs she encountered while struggling with one of life’s greatest challenges.

BIRD ON FIRE

Jane Wells writes on many themes. She is the host of our colorful Faith Goes Pop department, which explores connections between faith and popular culture—and Jane also has developed the Bird on Fire department, which inspires individuals and congregations to get involved in combating modern slavery, hunger and homelessness. In working with young people, Jane became aware that the enormous fascination with science fiction books and movies, especially The Hunger Games, reveals a deep concern for many of the world’s most vulnerable men, women and children. Jane’s slogans include: “Hunger isn’t science fiction.” If you know a young person—or you are a Hunger Games fan yourself—there’s not a better Lenten book than Bird on Fire: A Bible Study for Understanding the Hunger Games.

(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: BibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysPeacemaking

Abraham Lincoln and visions of a ‘United America’

(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this sesquicentennial era of the Civil War—Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer is writing a series of columns about the legacy of our 16th president. Learn more about our many Lincoln resources, which you are welcome to share with friends or with your organization to spark discussion.)

This famous lithograph of Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for president in 1860 was created from a painting by Thomas Hicks, made into a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier. It is available for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

This famous lithograph of Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for president in 1860 was created from a painting by Thomas Hicks, made into a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier. It is available for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

By Duncan Newcomer

Abraham Lincoln understood that politics lives by talk.

That is why he was so careful with his spoken words, why he worked so hard to get his words right. He would have succeeded in averting the Civil War if more of the people more of the time had been good listeners. He said in his First Inaugural Address, “We are not enemies. We must not be enemies.” He then appealed to the “better angels of our nature” so we would not become enemies.

What shows the better angels of our nature more than our values? Lincoln appealed to our values to avert tragedy. But too many people were in what John Burt calls a “moral panic” in his new book, Lincoln’s Tragic Pragmatism Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict. Despite Lincoln’s eloquent appeals, people didn’t listen, or couldn’t believe his words, or they were listening to a different set of values.

We can ask what would have happened if more people, then, knew how to talk and listen to each other from a common set of values. We can hope as a society that we have learned how to talk and listen better. We have a new instrument for achieving harmony in politics with Wayne Baker’s new book with the long title, United America The surprising truth about American values, American identity and the 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear just published by ReadTheSpirit.

The book is chock full of up-to-date information about what we believe, accurate facts about who we have become—the true status of our values—and multiple sources of wisdom and guidance from a wide variety of thinkers, including personal stories and lots of quotes from just “the people.” But as we learn from the Preface by Brian McLaren, it is a chilling picture as well. Across the board we are failing our values.

The good news is we share those values.

WHAT WOULD LINCOLN SAY
ABOUT THE 10 VALUES IN ‘UNITED AMERICA’?

Before looking at the 10 values documented in Dr. Baker’s research, let’s consider one other point he makes in this new book: Americans, it turns out, hold “Kindness” as our No. 1 “character strength.” This finding is from a world-wide survey of over 50 nations, of whom none but the U.S. picked Kindness as No. 1. Few presidents seem as kind, even kindly, as Abraham Lincoln. He forgave hundreds of deserting soldiers often saying things like, “You can’t blame a man for what his legs do.” When kindness becomes policy we call it reconciliation. Overall, Americans tend to be hard on leaders who call us to reconcile. Woodrow Wilson wanted a peace treaty with Germany that stressed reconciliation. Lincoln wanted peace with the rebel South that built on reconciliation. To bind up the nations wounds and tend to the widow and the orphan was Lincoln’s Second Inaugural plea.

Looking at the 10 values listed in United America:

Respect for Others. Lincoln’s single deepest value was his desire to earn the esteem of his fellow citizens, and he knew to do that he needed to be worthwhile to them. He said so in his first posting for local elected office. A psychologist recently said, in a lecture on Lincoln, that his deepest need was to earn the esteem of others. People felt this, his respect for them.

Symbolic Patriotism. Lincoln became a symbol for patriotism. Everything we know about him goes into how we feel when see the Lincoln Memorial, or hear again the Gettysburg Address, or see his outstretched hand with its shiny finger tips in a small bronze statue in the rear corner of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Most people now love him partly because he loved this county with mystic fervor. We see him as an icon for that love.

Freedom. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master, this expresses my idea of democracy.…” That was one statement of Lincoln’s about freedom. His view of slavery was that taking away the freedom of another human corrupted the person who did the taking. Corruption—spiritual and social—necessarily would be spread by the need to use force to maintain it. The sacred canopy of Law was Lincoln’s sanctuary for freedom. Freedom was the American opposite of the oppression known from European history.

Security. Lincoln would joke about the mosquito bite wounds he suffered as a captain in the brief Black Hawk Indian War. But he became the Commander in Chief over the largest use of force ever assembled in this country at that time. The war inflicted a total of 600,000 casualties, which would be 6 million people if figured as a percentage of today’s total population. He used force in an absolute way for the single purpose of re-establishing the authority of the national government, which he considered to be a sacred trust.

Self-reliance and Individualism. Lincoln may have heard Ralph Waldo Emerson in a Chicago speech. He felt the deep call to find the force of nature that was in him and to fulfill what his partner William Herndon called “the little engine of his ambition.” He did that with extremely thorough work. Of the seven generations of Lincolns who had lived in America, he was the first to move without a relative to accompany him. When at the age of twenty-two he landed in New Salem, Illinois, in July of 1831 to start his life, he was alone.

Equal Opportunity. With those five words, “All men are created equal,” Dr. Baker opens his sixth chapter. From the time Thomas Jefferson penned that new natural law to the time when Martin Luther King brought it all home, first for Black Americans and then for poor Americans, no one lifted those words higher than Abraham Lincoln. If the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice, as King reminded us, the American crown on that rainbow was Lincoln at Gettysburg making equality the new gold to be found at the rainbow’s end. Always a matter not of social status—but of legal status—equality for Lincoln was the common doorway to opportunity.

Getting Ahead. Lincoln admitted his taste for the presidency. He was ambitious in advancing his career. He was the smartest person he knew. He worked long hours and hard ones. He was lucky often. When he saw a chance to merge his failing career with his moral passion to stop the spread of slavery, he became a national meteor. But he told his law partner that after his presidency was over, he would just come back, again, so the two of them could hang out a shingle and practice law just like before. In August of 1864 he fully expected not to be re-elected, and wrote a letter for the next president and put it in his desk drawer. He was peacefully resigned.

The Pursuit of Happiness. Lincoln made himself happy telling jokes which he need to relieve his melancholy. He deeply enjoyed the theater. As president, he learned to like opera. His chief pleasures were to read his Robert Burns and Lord Byron—and to read and recite Shakespeare. He had a frontier man’s appetite for simple food, and he did not drink or smoke or lust after women. He did make money as a railroad lawyer in Illinois and had one of the better houses in Springfield. He was proud of his social achievement, but that was not what made him happy.

Justice & Fairness. Kindness and mutual help was the way people survived and children grew up in the small settlements in Indiana when Lincoln was a boy. There were eight other families within a mile of his home in Pigeon Creek, and another six within two miles. Within four miles of his home there were 90 children under the age of seven and 48 between seven and seventeen. That adds up to a lot of people to enforce fairness and the Golden Rule. The rule of law was for Lincoln the force that made fair play and justice work.

Critical Patriotism. In a speech to the New Jersey Legislature on his way to becoming president, Lincoln turned a crucial—and critical—phrase. He referred to America as “God’s almost chosen people.” That is what separates Lincoln from the glory gluttons of contemporary patriotism. He had a mystical awe for what self-government in a free land could mean for the human race. He was not ever in favor of the nativist American movement that wanted to slam the door on immigrants. As an Enlightenment thinker, Lincoln was poised to be critical of just about everything. He and Mark Twain would have been Mississippi riverboat soul mates joking with skeptical discontent in the service of a freer humanity. While the war effort closed down much political opposition, Lincoln was never the tyrant people feared or imagined.

THE DILEMMA:
HOW DO WE ACT OUT ‘OUR’ VALUES?

We can never know what Lincoln would do now. But we can easily imagine him reading United America and “getting it.”

We know from his life and words that his appeal to values failed in preventing the Civil War. Competing values themselves made the Civil War. If there had been sociologists trained like Dr. Baker in 1860, it would have been interesting to know if they could have found a common ground in the values claimed by North and South. Could those values then have been a part of the better angels of their nature?

Certainly the values Lincoln offered as he entered his presidency, values of reason, law, and sheer common sense, were not enough to calm the “moral panic” of the extremists on both sides.

As the conflict unfolded, Lincoln pondered deeply why the war was so long and horrible. He wondered: Were there deeper demons in human nature? Was there some higher value he had yet to grasp? Finally for Lincoln, what he perceived as the mystery of God in history and Biblical justice were what defined the common ground for the North and the South.

Ironically, it was killer angels that made happen what our better angels failed to do. This was the tragedy of that failed conversation about values.

ON DUNCAN NEWCOMER

In 1999 Duncan earned a Doctor in Ministry in Preaching from the ACTS DMin program through the Chicago Theological Seminary. He is the author of Desperately Seeking Mary. He  has prepared various community resources, discussion starters and historical columns, which you can find in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page. Currently, he is working on an upcoming series of columns about the popular Western writer Ralph Moody (1898-1992), the author of the Little Britches books. Duncan currently lives and works in Maine, but travels to present talks and programs. Got questions about Duncan’s work? Email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

ON ‘UNITED AMERICA’

Visit our resource page for the new book, United America, to learn more about the 10 core values documented in research by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker. The United America resource page includes study guides and also two colorful, downloadable charts of the 10 values.

You are free to use, discuss, share and even republish this “sample sermon,” as long as you credit Duncan Newcomer and www.ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine.

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Categories: Great With GroupsHolidaysPeacemaking

Our Holiday Grab Bag of 12 Guilt-Free Gifts

shopping for a little something? Perhaps a last-minute gift for a friend—or, maybe someone gave you a little cash in a holiday card, and you’re going to choose something for yourself? The staff and friends of ReadTheSpirit suggest these 12 Guilt-Free Gifts.

1. VISUAL PARABLES JOURNAL

Ed McNulty Visual Parables Journal on Faith and FilmFor more than 30 years, the Rev. Edward McNulty has been a national treasure. Since the 1970s, Ed has used his skills as both a Presbyterian clergyman and a professional Film Critic to write movie reviews, study guides and books that show readers how to explore films from a faith perspective. Each week, to this day, Ed “gives away” new film reviews in his department within Read The Spirit, called Visual Parables. But, today, we’re encouraging you to dig deeper into Ed’s wealth of resources: The way to receive Ed’s small-group study guides, each month, is to purchase a fully paid subscription to the one thing he sells: Visual Parables Journal. Please, support the work of this faithful film critic—and enjoy lots of uplifting fun with movies in 2014. How to get this: CLICK on the Visual Parables graphic at right; then, at Ed’s website, choose “Subscribe to the Full Journal.”

2. THE FLAVORS OF FAITH

If you’re shopping for a gift that you can share with family, friends or a small group in your community—then, please, buy a copy of Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith.  Lynne’s book tells the true story of how different kinds of bread are connected with the spiritual traditions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Native Americans. She not only tells the sacred stories of these “Holy Breads”—she also provides delicious recipes for each bread. This will give you and your family months of inspiring eating—and it’s a great idea to use in either a New Year’s class or a Lenten-season small group at your church. How to get this: CLICK on this link, or CLICK on the Flavors of Faith book cover shown in the left margin of this webpage.

3. BIRD ON FIRE: ‘HUNGER ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION’

Bird on Fire Jane Wells websiteFaith-and-pop-culture expert Jane Wells is just releasing her newest inspirational book. As we discussed with Jane in a recent author interview, her new book, called Bird on Fire, taps into the phenomenal interest among teens and 20-somethings in science fiction and fantasy tales like The Hunger Games. This is an age range largely missing from most churches. However, as Jane says in our interview, the themes that are so compelling in these novels and movies are connected with major charitable campaigns in churches nationwide: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and freeing contemporary slaves. These themes also connect with inspiring Bible stories, which Jane explains in her book. Energize and welcome this missing age group in your congregation by starting a local group to discuss Bird on Fire. How to get this: CLICK on the Bird on Fire graphic to jump directly to our Bookstore; or click on this Interview link to read more about Jane and her book.  

4. LAUGH IN THE FACE OF FEAR WITH RODNEY CURTIS

Rodney Curtis-book-coversLongtime readers are familiar with columnist Rodney Curtis, known by the title of his first memoir, The Spiritual Wanderer. Since we started ReadTheSpirit online magazine, Rodney’s quirky columns have launched 1,000 laughs. What’s amazing is that his good humor continued—even as Rodney hit the direst challenges of our era: losing his job in a downsizing industry—and—discovering that he had life-threatening cancer. He has survived both with his attitude undimmed. In our recent interview with Rodney, he talks about how he manages to keep “laughing in the face of fear”—and to encourage his readers to do the same. There’s not a better, more-hopeful gift for someone who needs a shot of humor than buying one—or all three—of Rodney’s books. How to get this: CLICK on the Rodney Curtis book covers, above, to jump to our Bookstore. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Rodney and his remarkable work.

5. RABBI BOB ALPER: ‘THANKS. I NEEDED THAT.’

Rabbi Bob Alper Thanks I Needed That coverThere’s no storyteller like Rabbi Bob Alper, the world’s only full-time stand-up comic and practicing rabbi, whose hilarious routines are heard daily on the Sirius/XM clean comedy channel. His new book features 32 true stories from settings as far flung as The Tonight Show studio, the hills of Vermont, and a tiny Polish village. Readers meet a stained-glass artist whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore, a woman who attends services with her dog, a 5-year-old grief counselor and an elderly Holocaust survivor who discovers that he can speak about his lost sisters for the first time. Warm, touching stories that evoke laughter and tears—this is a perfect gift for you or a loved one in the depths of Winter. How to get this: CLICK on the image of the smiling boy from Bob’s book cover, above, to jump to our Bookstore.

6. ‘DISTILLED SPIRITS,’ A GIFT FROM DON LATTIN.

Don Lattin book cover detail from Distilled SpiritsIf you happen to read this column before December 27, 2013, then author, journalist and religious historian Don Lattin is giving all of us a gift. He temporarily set the Kindle price at $1.99 for his fascinating book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. In April, we interviewed Don Lattin about this new book, which is an in-depth look at influences behind the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous and the spiritual connections between Bill Wilson, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. The 12-Step movement now is regarded as a historic breakthrough in the history of world religions—and Don’s book is a terrific read. We guarantee: You’ve never heard the true story he unfolds in this book. How to get this: CLICK on the Distilled Spirits book image to jump to Amazon. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Don and his remarkable work. Or, you can visit Don’s own website. (And if you’re reading this column after December 27—hey, the book is still a terrific read!)

7. MARGARET PASSENGER: ‘FINDING OURSELVES IN THE BIBLE’

Margaret Passenger's She and You and Me coverThe full title of Margaret Passenger’s new book is, She and You and Me: Finding Ourselves in the BibleMargaret’s long career spans three professions as: a high-school English teacher, a newspaper copy editor and a United Methodist minister. She and her husband, editor Henry Passenger, are longtime friends of ReadTheSpirit magazine and Books. Also, here in Michigan where our Home Office is based, the Passengers are very active in the interfaith network known as Michigan Communicators. Margaret agrees with us here at ReadTheSpirit in one pointed critique of inspirational publishing nationwide: Most readers of these books are women; yet more men than women are given opportunities to publish such books. Margaret spent many years working with small groups in parishes to perfect this book-length study of women in the Bible. We recommend it and encourage you to support Margaret’s work by ordering a copy. It’s a great choice for a New Year’s or Lenten small group discussion, because one of the central themes is: encouraging women today to take courage from the examples of biblical women. How to get this: CLICK on Maragaret’s book cover, at right, to jump to Amazon.

8. A Rare Story of Jesus as a Boy

Chris Stepien cover image from Three Days The Search for the Boy MessiahSpeaking of interfaith connections in publishing, we are impressed with the work of Chris Stepien, an independent author whose story appeared in ReadTheSpirit in June. His new book is called Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah. Like the Passengers (mentioned above), Chris is a long-time media professional who now is active in interfaith work. A devout Catholic and a father, Chris felt moved to explore the brief biblical account of Jesus as a boy getting “lost” in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though Chris admits that he isn’t a formally trained Bible scholar—he set out to research and write a novelized account of those experiences. We are impressed with Chris’s approach to this work. Using his professional talents as a writer and researcher, Chris sincerely is trying to build cross-cultural connections through his storytelling. We say: He’s setting a great example. Get the book! Read it! How to get this: CLICK on the “Three Days” image from Chris’s book cover to jump to Amazon.

9. Fran McKendree helps out with a song

Musician Fran McKendreeSinger/songwriter Fran McKendree is a good friend to our readers, through his regular sharing of stories and songs. Among his past columns in our online magazine: You can see and hear him in this story, which includes a video of Fran performing Times Like These. Then, in his column Let’s Go Fly a Kite, Fran described a retreat he designed involving kites. This autumn, he wrote about his involvement in the Awakening Soul project. Then, one more link: Many readers enjoyed this meditative chant in video form. Our message to all of our readers is: Get to know this talented and faithful musician! He travels the country working with church groups and peacemaking events. And, right now, he’s selling a Christmas carol (for a dollar) to help raise funds for a good cause. How to get this: CLICK on the image of Fran to jump to his website. (And if you’re reading this column after Fran is finished with the Christmas carol effort—hey, get to know him through his website! He’s always starting something new and inspiring.)

10. Learn about Native Americans in ‘Our Fires Still Burn’

Our Fires Still Burn documentary DVD image Audrey GeyerFilmmaker Audrey Geyer devoted years to producing the documentary, Our Fires Still Burn, about the contemporary lives of Great Lakes Indians. What inspires us about this film is that Audrey balances the stories she includes in her film so that she is honest about some deep wounds, including the campaign to force Indian children into boarding schools, but she also highlights bright sparks of renewed life, as well. Her film has been featured in public showings—as well as regional broadcasts on PBS stations. You may see Our Fires Still Burn showing up on a PBS affiliate near you in 2014. Right now, though, we are encouraging our readers to visit Audrey’s website, learn about her documentary, make people aware of the film—and, please, consider ordering a DVD. How to get this: CLICK on the image from Audrey’s film to jump to her website.

11. Don’t Forget the Caregivers!

We Are Caregivers dot Com bannerHelping the nation’s millions of caregivers is a major goal at ReadTheSpirit, spearheaded by WeAreCaregivers.com columnist Heather Jose. In fact, Heather recently wrote a column, called What do we give? If you’re reading this item and you’ve forgotten to think of a caregiver in your life at this time of year—go read Heather’s column and make a plan. We are urging readers, as 2013 moves into 2014, to bookmark http://www.WeAreCaregivers.com so you won’t miss the many inspiring and helpful columns Heather brings us, each week. She welcomes guest writers, as well, including Benjamin Pratt, Rodney Curtis and Paul Hile. Of course, we would love to have you look at our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore and support these writers by buying any of our half-dozen caregiving-themed books. And, if you’re thinking of organizing a caregiving ministry in 2014, we would love to hear from you! Heather occasionally makes appearances at events nationwide and she’s always looking for ideas to highlight in her columns. How to do this: CLICK on the blue Caregivers logo to visit Heather’s department. Or, email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

12. Join MSU in Celebrating American Diversity

MSU School of Journalism-100-Q-Americans-teamFinally, one of our proudest accomplishments is enabling the Michigan State University School of Journalism to launch a whole series of books helping in nationwide efforts to encourage “cultural competency”—the phrase commonly used today to describe educational efforts to break down cross-cultural bias. With coordination from MSU’s Joe Grimm, a veteran journalist and educator, MSU students first produced The New Bullying and quickly discovered that the book made a real impact in awakening adults to emerging forms of bullying among teens. Since then, Joe and his MSU teams of students have produced the first two volumes of what will be an extensive series of books on gaining “cultural competency.” Please, do your part to build healthier, more peaceful communities in 2014 by learning about the MSU project and buying these guides to use in your region. How to do this: CLICK on the image of MSU students to visit our most recent story about this pioneering project. You’ll find links there to purchase their guides.

(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: Great With GroupsHolidays