Meet Reasa Currier of the HSUS—a different kind of interfaith activist

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s the mission of an interfaith activist?

Often, the vocation involves bridging religious barriers in our communities, combating bigotry, defending human rights, and courageously promoting peace in global hotspots (see InterfaithPeacemakers.com for more).

This week, we’re introducing a different kind of interfaith activist who is crisscrossing the nation on behalf of animals: the Humane Society of the United States’ Reasa Currier. Her title is long: Strategic Initiatives Manager for Faith Outreach, a division of the HSUS.

FAITH & PUBLIC POLICY UNITE

Reasa Currier speaking to a grup (1)

Reasa Currier of Humane Society of the United States speaks to a group.

Reasa Currier’s mission is clear: She connects with religious leaders and activists who are motivated by their faith to join in widespread efforts on behalf of animals.

She’s relatively new to the job, yet her potential impact also is clear: In June 2015, Tennessee enacted tougher penalties for animal fighting, a campaign in which the Southern Baptist Convention played a key role thanks to Reasa’s work on behalf of HSUS with Russell Moore, president of the influential Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting; it is a move away from the exploitation of the poor through expanded gambling,” said Moore, who attended the June 11 signing of the legislation in Tennessee.

The anti-animal-fighting campaign is aimed at more than owners and promoters of animal fights. Reasa reminds faith leaders that this business represents a dangerous lure for poor Americans, often drawing them into ever-deeper cycles of gambling and also bringing their children into the bloody world of animal fighting.

Fighting rings are dangerous environments for vulnerable men and women, Moore and other religious leaders argue. In a public letter endorsing the Tennessee law earlier this spring, Moore warned that a “relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow.”

Are you surprised that kids are involved? One Tennessee newspaper featured a photo of a small boy proudly showing off his fighting bird.

Reasa says, “We’ve been involved in opposing dog fighting and cock fighting rings all across the country and we often find that children are present. We’ve found playpens set up near the fighting for small children. We’ve even seen children exchanging money as they gamble on the fights. That’s why we’re focusing on keeping children away—and we also support making it illegal for anyone to attend an animal fight. All too often, police raid a fight and nearly everyone walks away with no consequences.”

Many religious leaders find such a cause is in perfect alignment with their values. (Here is Baptist Press coverage of the Tennessee effort.)

WHY FAITH GROUPS CARE

Animal welfare and creation care may not be high priorities in your congregation—but they could be, Reasa argues. She can show teaching documents that span centuries and, in some cases, millennia.

Buddha receiving honey from a monkey (1)

Sacred relationships with animals run deep in the Dharmic religions, especially Buddhism. Buddhists are not supposed to harm any sentient being. Moreover, the Eastern idea of reincarnation means that an animal you encounter might represent a friend or relative you knew in another life or might know in the future. Plus, animals play a major role in sacred stories. In this painting from a monastery in Laos, a monkey brings the Buddha a stick containing a portion of honeycomb.

“Many Americans are aware of the ancient tradition of  compassion toward living things in the Dharmic faiths,” which include Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions, Reasa says. “But, all of the world’s faiths have some teaching on animal stewardship—so I’m not trying to convince people to accept something new. It’s right there in their religious traditions. A lot of my work is connecting with faith leaders to lift up the teachings that they already have in their communities.”

The majority of Americans are Christians, although they may not often explore their teachings on animal welfare. The Christian connection draws on ancient roots of compassionate stewardship of land and animals in Judaism—a message of care for life that also extends into the other “Abrahamic” faith: Islam.

Many iconic Christian leaders—from St. Francis to the founder of United Methodism John Wesley—were famous for advocating animal welfare. ReadTheSpirit magazine has one of Wesley’s sermons on the topic. During his lifetime, some of Wesley’s harshest critics poked fun at his soft heart for animals and joked that they could spot a Methodist farmer’s barnyard by the kinder ways he treated his animals.

“Christians have a great and ancient history in understanding there is a sacred relationship between the farmer and the land, the land and the community and that includes the welfare of animals,” Reasa says. “There are so many scriptures that speak to this relationship.”

Given this deep consensus, Reasa says, “The easy part of my work is getting endorsements from faith leaders for issues the Humane Society is supporting. Sometimes it only takes a call or an email to tell them about an issue we’re working on—and they’ll want to be part of it. The hard part of my job is building community among the individuals we reach. We need to establish ongoing connections around animal stewardship.”

While Reasa’s work is in the U.S., she points out to religious leaders that efforts on behalf of animals and the environment can build relationships in the burgeoning Southern Hemisphere, where Catholics, Protestants and Muslims all have been experiencing growth. Uniting North and South is a message championed this year by Pope Francis.

REFUSING TO SLIDE INTO DESPAIR

methodist-theological-farm-photo-by-reasa-currier

Click on this photo of the seminary farm to visit the United Methodist website where Reasa published her article. (Photo by Reasa Currier.)

As she travels, Reasa writes and speaks about signs of hope she sees nationwide.

“The news about climate change and the challenges of creation care can quickly turn to conversation about hurricanes and poverty and tragedies—and that can lead to a kind of helplessness,” she says. “The problems can seem to be of such magnitude that it’s just hopeless to try to make a difference as an individual.”

HSUS is well aware of that danger. That’s why the organization promotes lots of individual initiatives like The Humane Backyard, which people can work on wherever they live. Here’s how HSUS describes the idea:

In addition to providing food, water, and cover, a Humane Backyard gives wildlife a safe haven from harmful pesticides and chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices (such as wildlife trapping), and other dangers in our human-dominated world. Whether you have an apartment balcony, suburban yard, corporate property, place of worship, or community park, you can turn it into a habitat for wildlife, people, and pets.

For her part, Reasa lifts up small but significant examples she spots, while on the road. Recently, she published a column about a seminary that has established a community garden that is changing the way people think about the food they eat.

“I was impressed with their garden,” Reasa says. “They aren’t sinking into helplessness. They are doing something—planting a garden, harvesting vegetables and making a commitment that all their food is sourced in a sustainable and humane manner. They get their meat and dairy from local farms that have high animal-welfare standards. And the vegetables they grow are letting them cut back on the amount of food they’re buying that has to be transported thousands of miles.”

Want to get involved?

Learn about the Faith Outreach division of HSUS.

th Cover Dr Seuss What Pet Should I GetThis week, ReadTheSpirit is publishing several columns packed with ideas you can use with friends. If you found this story about Reasa Currier interesting, then you’ll also want to read our story about the importance of Pope Francis’s campaign on creation care—and you’re sure to enjoy the OurValues series exploring the historic release of a new Dr. Seuss book: What Pet Should I Get?

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesChristianJewishMuslimNatural WorldPeacemaking

Iona meets Interfaith Peacemakers in John Philip Newell’s ‘Rebirthing of God’

Dramatic peaks vistas and drop offs in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland photo by Nigel Brown Wikimedia

A dramatic landscape: Peaks, vistas and dangerous drop offs in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.

The Rebirthing of God by John Philip Newell SkyLight Paths Publishing

Click the cover to visit the book’s main page at SkyLight Paths.

WE at ReadTheSpirit magazine sometimes overlook great new books, until colleagues reach out to us and urge us to recommend them. Such is the case with John Philip Newell’s new The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, which was released some months ago.

Of course we can heartily recommend this book! ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Publisher John Hile have made multiple pilgrimages to the centuries-old Christian community on the island of Iona, which defines John Philip’s life and is a cornerstone of the stories in this slim new volume. And, we have recommended his other books in recent years, including A New Harmony as well as Praying with the Earth.

This new book inspires us especially, because John Philip includes inspirational profiles of men and women who we also celebrate in Interfaith Peacemakers, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi and Simone Weil. (If you’ve enjoyed our stories about these heroic saints, then you’ll definitely want to read John Philip’s stories about them in this new book, as well.)

DUNCAN NEWCOMER’S PERSPECTIVE

Long-time contributing writer, scholar and author Duncan Newcomer prompted today’s column, recommending The Rebirthing of God. Last week, Duncan wrote to our home office that he had just used an illustration from the new book in a sermon he preached. Duncan wrote:

I read John Philip’s book and was so astonished that I read it a second time. Then, I outlined the book, because I know I’m going to be discussing it as I travel and speak to groups around the country.

Recently, I told John Philip: “While I will always most highly favor your 2003 book, Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, this new one may be your best in that it has such an intense and clear focus, incredibly condensed and urgent. It’s a unique and remarkable collection of sources and resources all dramatically presented in their essence. What seems most remarkable is that you have collected a cohort of strong, originally and courageously involved people to quote—and you give us cameo images of their lives.”

As I read the book, I thought: Imagine a round-table discussion of all the people we meet in these pages!

JOHN PHILIP NEWELL’S PERSPECTIVE

Then, here’s a page from John Philip’s new book to give you a feeling for his style in these inspirational stories. Many passages are, indeed, about the lives of interfaith heroes. But, again and again, John Philip brings these ideas home to his native Scotland and frequently tells us about experiences on Iona itself. After describing the compassion that defines the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, he writes:

Many years ago when my wife and I were hiking in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland we had just reached one of the highest peaks, Sgoran Dubh, when a thick cloud descended on s. It covered the mountain. The mist was so thick that we could barely see our outstretched hands. Climbing in the Cairngorms can be dangerous. Every year hikers die in such circumstances, slipping off precipitous cliffs. Sgoran Dubh can be particularly treacherous because a few yards from its summit there is a sheer drop of over 2,000 feet to the next glen.

God using a compass in creation

In this 13th-century illumination, a Divine compass is used to measure and connect points in the creation of the universe.

We knew where we were and we had a compass and a map. So we took a reading and, one step at a time, followed our readings of the map and compass down the mountain. There were moments when we could barely believe the compass was right. At times our senses were telling us something entirely different. But we knew that we had to place our faith in the compass. In the end we emerged safely from the cloud down the mountainside.

Notice the similarity between the word “compass” and the word “compassion.” They share an etymological root.

The earliest use of the word compass does not, of course, refer to the modern hiking compass as we know it, the one I had in hand as we descended the mountain. The word is first used to refer to the mathematical compass, that simple two-pronged device that many of us remember  using in grade school to measure the distance between two points and to draw arcs and circles.

A compass, then, is used to determine the relationship between two points. The related word compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection—just as we followed the compass in descending the mist-covered mountain—even when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.

 Order a copy of John Philip Newell’s new book from SkyLight Paths.

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Categories: ChristianNatural WorldPeacemakingUncategorized

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

‘Teach Your Children Well …’ Books to help kids fall in love with nature

Covers Just Like Me Climbing a Tree and The Olive Tree and Welcome to the NeighborwoodKIDS love our world—and expect those of us who are adults to take care of the planet until they are old enough to fully enjoy the Earth. One poll after another confirms that truth—and that’s a huge responsibility as Earth Day 2015 rolls around.

As adults who love kids, the first challenge is convincing children to open the door and explore our natural world. A nationwide study of kids by The Nature Conservancy concluded: “There is a growing disparity between the time kids spend indoors wired to technology and the time they spend outside enjoying nature. The vast majority of today’s kids use a computer, watch TV, or play video games on a daily basis, but only about 10 percent say they are spending time outdoors every day. Why? Lack of access to natural areas and discomfort with the outdoors are two primary factors.”

HOW WE’RE HELPING

‘JUST LIKE ME, CLIMBING A TREE’

OUR 1st OF 5 RECOMMENDATIONS—Kids have been climbing trees for thousands of years—so the appeal of Durga Yael Bernhard’s book will be almost universal among the kids you love. It’s also true that trees are endangered ecological engines that continually clean the air we breath, retain soil from erosion and provide all kinds of useful products: fruits, nuts, syrups, oils, wood for building shelters and fibers for a wide array of other materials that make our world a better place to live. But that’s not the primary story this artist and author tells us, as her readers. Oh, you’ll learn a whole lot about the huge range of trees around the world! I have a life-long love for Gingko trees and, in my own lifetime, I have planted a few gingkos in various towns. And, mid-way through this book, I smiled when I met a little Chinese girl high in a majestic Gingko with its fan-shaped leaves. I love olive trees, as well, and we meet a girl high in an olive tree in Israel. The author also tells us more about each kind of tree in the back pages of this large-format picture book—so there is real educational value here. But, as I say, that’s not the main storyline here. This book’s appeal is as simple as our timeless desire to look up into the trees around us—and dream of climbing high into those branches. That’s why Robert Frost’s Birches became an American classic. Before you close this book, you’ll see girls and boys in a dozen countries around the world scrambling into these leafy limbs. This could become a family favorite on your bookshelf. And, Just Like Me, Climbing a Tree: Exploring Trees Around the World is now available from Amazon.

‘THE OLIVE TREE’

THERE is a no more potent tree on Earth than the noble olive. In dozens of languages around the world, an “olive branch” means peace. Olives and olive trees are a part of the scriptures in millions of homes and communities, whether families are reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Bible or the Quran. And, the ownership and treatment of olive trees are matters of deep international concern. Author Elsa Marston understands all of that. She has a life-long fascination with the ancient world as well as the modern Middle East. She knows her history and, in 2013, she released another book that I heartily recommend, The Compassionate Warrior—Abd el-Kader of Algeria, also published by Wisdom Books. Her latest book, a collaboration with illustrator Claire Ewart, is a wonderfully engaging picture book about The Olive Tree. The tree in question has been growing, and producing olives, for more than a century on the property line between two families’ homes in Lebanon. Throughout that long and turbulent history, the families have separated and now they are trying to restore their neighborhood. The trouble is—that olive tree. And, the hope for their future? Yes, it lies in that tree, as well. The Olive Tree is available from Amazon.

‘WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORWOOD’

Honeybee pop up from Shawn Sheehy Welcome to the NeighborwoodYOU won’t believe the wonders inside this picture book! That is, you won’t believe it—unless you’re already an avid collector of contemporary Pop Up books by the likes of master book builder Robert Sabuda. In our family, we’ve been collecting Pop Up books since relatives returned to the U.S. from Japan in the late 1940s and brought back a miraculous Pop Up book that showed the colorful daily life of a typical family in scenes that literally sprang from each opening page. We’ve been hooked on the genre for 60 years, raising kids on the surprises within this picture-book genre. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Shawn Sheehy, but he is following in Sabuda’s path. Sheehy is turning his own his brilliant talents as a paper-and-publishing artist toward the natural world in his various projects. At the moment, his crowning accomplishment is this book. After this, I’m sure there are many wonders yet to come from Sheehy’s studio. I know I’ll be watching for more. No question, if you love Pop Up books and the natural world—grab a copy of this book now. It’s sure to be a classic! And, Welcome to the Neighborwood is available from Amazon.

Want to see for yourself? Click to watch the pages open in this video:

‘EVERYONE PRAYS’

Covers Everyone Prays by Alexis Lumbard and Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth GrahamAS a journalist for U.S. newspapers for 40 years, I specialized in covering issues of global diversity. That’s why, I fell in love with Alexis York Lumbard’s book Everyone Prays the moment I saw it. This book belongs in every home where parents value religious freedom, diversity and the hope that world peace is possible if we focus on what unites us. There are very few words in this gorgeous book—but the words and the colorful scenes chosen by illustrator Alizera Sadeghian convey an entire library of truth about the world’s great faith traditions. I guarantee this: Even the adults who read this book with the kids they love will learn a thing or two about the nature of prayer before they close this picture book. Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World is available from Amazon.

‘NIGHT SKY DRAGONS’

OUR final choice among these five books that will inspire the children you love to open new doors into our world is Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham. This is both a “picture book” and a “story book” that adults will want to read to kids, at first. Eventually, you’ll find, this will become a family favorite and the kids will read it back to you. The story is set centuries ago in the heart of the Silk Road that connected East and West for trade in some of the world’s most valuable commodities. The main characters are a family charged with defending a safe town along that famous route. When a deadly gang of bandits besieges the town, the adults are paralyzed and desperate. That’s when a little boy named Yazul has a brilliant idea to use the kites that he loves to build with his grandfather to peacefully scare away this terrifying force encamped outside the town’s gates. Anyone who has traveled across Asia knows the timeless ritual of greeting the spring with kites. In Western culture, you might fondly recall “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. What this husband-and-wife writing team has achieved in this book, though, transcends those spring rituals and gives our love of kites in the blue spring sky a whole new meaning. There is a much deeper tale here—a message that our love of the seasons and the natural world, coupled with timeless wisdom like the ancient talent of building sophisticated kites—holds the promise of saving our troubled world. And, Night Sky Dragons is available from Amazon, too.

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesNatural WorldPeacemakingUncategorized

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

The Ragan Sutterfield interview on ‘This Is My Body’

Cover of Ragan Sutterfield's 'This Is My Body'

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

ASHAMED of your body? Overweight? (Millions of us are.) Not attractive? Not athletic? Addicted to chocolate or cigarettes or worse? Are you wondering: Who could love such a body—including you yourself?

If so—then here’s good news. Ragan Sutterfield has written a book just for us: This Is My Body—From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. And to answer your first two questions: Yes, Ragan’s spiritual journey led him from disgust with his overweight body, his addiction to cigarettes and his problems with physical intimacy to a healthy life. But, no, he’s not expecting readers to compete in extreme sports. This is a book for—well for us, if we find ourselves drawn toward religious life, yet we forget to tend to our bodies.

There’s clearly something wrong in the mind-body-spirit culture within American congregations, Ragan argues persuasively. In many communities, what’s wrong is evangelical preaching that our bodies are wicked and we should only worry about getting our souls into heaven.

He’s not alone in confronting this kind of preaching. Another group of religious leaders trying to counter this “our-bodies-are-wicked” theology are the writers producing www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com where they point out that many body-related issues wind up painfully excluding individuals, and their families, from congregational life. Or, those Third Way writers point out, churchgoers feel pressure to hide their true physical identities.

Ragan’s book zeroes in on one particular issue: the way our understanding of faith shapes our approach to health and to physical contact with those we love. Millions of Americans are caught in patterns of shame, addictive behaviors and a tragic inability to take seriously the physical meaning of our marriage vows. In that last realm, Ragan writes about his own struggles with marriage and the spiritual pathway that led him to loving and caring for his wife Emily in sickness and in health and in all physical conditions.

He opens the book with some startling research data—a 2011 Northwestern University study that shows frequent involvement in congregational life, when young, is linked to greater likelihood of obesity in middle age. When it first appeared, that study sparked headlines nationwide. (Care to read more about the study? Here are a Northwestern summary, a Chicago Tribune story, a US News story, and a report from Science Daily.)

But, this book isn’t only about getting into better physical shape. At an even deeper level, Ragan argues, the way we think about our bodies rests on the foundation of how we think about the world God has created. Is the totality of God’s Creation—this world, our environment, plants and animals and our bodies—fundamentally good? Or is this world an evil place where our wicked bodies lead us astray? Ragan argues passionately that what God has made in this world is good. Grounding our faith in that belief immediately begins to move us away from shame and a spiritual separation from our bodies, he argues. In short: Recognizing that God’s Creation is good is a pathway to spiritual and physical health.

And, this book isn’t just about our own physical health. If we are evangelically focused on abandoning an evil physical world for the paradise that may await us after death, then we also won’t care much about global warming, sustainable farming or the fate of non-human animals who live on our planet. Before writing this book, Ragan was best known as an author and activist promoting sustainable agriculture and care of the earth. Now, in 2015, he is working his way through Episcopal seminary and will emerge in a year or so as a priest serving congregations in his native Arkansas.

Finally, don’t let fear keep you from reading this book. Ragan won’t make you feel even guiltier than you perhaps feel right now. His approach is humble and completely honest about his own rocky journey. “I ask others to join with me in listening to what God is saying about this,” he tells readers. He’s an honest companion, not a task master pushing guilt.

This is a book you’ll find both inspiring and personally challenging—and that is sure to spark spirited discussion in your class or small group.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RAGAN SUTTERFIELD ON
‘THIS IS MY BODY’

DAVID: I was struck by the Northwestern study you describe in the opening of your book. There’s a lot of research showing that involvement in congregations is actually quite healthy—especially for older adults. And the Northwestern study still leaves a lot of questions unanswered—but it really is an ominous report. You also include some other research to back it up. Let’s share just a couple of lines with readers. You write:

“Theology has consequences. A church where the soul alone and not the body is saved becomes a place where the body is left to other stories or no story at all. Because the body doesn’t matter to our eternal salvation in this view, Christians tend to adopt secular views of the body or simply ignore it and its health altogether. Research has borne this out. According to a Northwestern University study that tracked over 2,000 participants for 18 years, adults like me, who attended evangelical churches as youth, are 50 percent more likely to be obese than our unchurched counterparts. Other research based on census data has shown that Southern Baptists and other, more evangelical denominations, are the heaviest of all religious groups.”

When I read it, I bookmarked that page. I thought: Wow, 50 percent more likely to be obese!

Ragan Sutterfield author of This Is My Body Photo by Paul Brown

RAGAN SUTTERFIELD (Photo by Paul Brown, used by permission of the publisher.)

RAGAN: I found that statistic really interesting because as I was growing up in a conservative evangelical context, we knew that our bodies were held in low esteem. Yes, we used to hear, “Your body is a temple,” but that mostly was the way adults warned us against smoking, drinking and sex. The real message was that these bodies we’re living in aren’t important—and we really need to pay attention to our souls. When you’re sharing those assumptions, it’s hard to take care of your body in a proper way.

DAVID: Your book is mainly a real-life story of how you—and some of the people around you—struggled along this spiritual journey to find a healthier, more integrated understanding of your life. It’s a true story with lots of interesting anecdotes, but you do pause in the narrative to teach us things along the way. And one of those lessons you teach early in the book is that the Bible’s Hebrew and Jewish roots don’t regard the body as some wicked, throw-away husk of life.

In the book, you sum it up at one point this way: “In Hebrew thought that most formed the imaginations of the writers of the New Testament, the body and the soul were inseparable.” And, you write, none of the early Jewish followers of Jesus “would have imagined a disembodied soul in the Greek sense. If there would be eternal life, it would have to come from the resurrection of the person, the whole package: body and spirit.”

You wrap up that section by telling readers in a 4-word paragraph: “We are our bodies.”

‘PART OF THE GOODNESS OF GOD’S CREATION’

RAGAN: I think my biggest hope for this book is that readers will walk away with a greater sense of the gift of our bodies. I want people to understand that our bodies are a part of the goodness of God’s creation.

DAVID: Let’s go back and fill in a bit of the timeline for readers.

RAGAN: I was born in Arkansas in 1980 and I’m moving into my 35th year. Right now, I’m about half way through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2016 I hope to be returning to Arkansas with my wife Emily and Lillian who is now 3 and in January we welcomed our second daughter Lucia.

DAVID: Some readers may know you from farming. You wrote Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. And you’ve been active nationally—and internationally, too—in organizations that promote sustainable farming and a concern for the environment. In this new book, there are some sections where you talk about your time as a farmer. So, give us a little update about your departure from agriculture.

RAGAN: I left farming, first of all, to work for Heifer International for a time, mainly working on their websites. Then, eventually I came to seminary.

DAVID: There’s no family farm in Arkansas to which you’ll be returning?

RAGAN: No, and the time I was farming was the time my body was heaviest and I got into some unhealthy habits. Someday, I might like to do a little small farming again, but I came to realize that full-time farming is very hard.

DAVID: I’ve been a fan of Wendell Barry myself and, in this book, you talk about Barry and also Henry David Thoreau.

RAGAN: Yes, I was inspired by Wendel Berry and other writers so much that I wanted to farm, too. So, I began an apprenticeship with a farmer in Arkansas and worked in varying capacities for several years. At one point, I was leasing land myself.

I had this  idea that I would work hard to provide healthy food for others—but I discovered the life is much harder than I had realized.

DAVID: You weren’t overweight as a child, but you’ve had issues with weight since your youth, right? For example, by high school, your weight prompted some teasing. We’re very involved in anti-bullying efforts, as an online magazine. Overweight teens face some tough challenges. That’s been a running theme, this season, on the TV show Glee, for example.

RAGAN: I was heavy enough in high school that I would get comments on it, yes. But it really was while I was farming that I gained the most weight.

DAVID: How big did you get?

RAGAN: I was so ashamed of my weight that I didn’t want to step on the scales, but I was upwards of 260. I was working so hard at this goal of healthy farming that I wound up eating convenience foods and drinking sugar-filled drinks. I’d even drink Red Bull to keep myself going.

DAVID: And now?

RAGAN: Well, I’m 5-foot-9 and now I stay under 180. I finally quit smoking a couple of years before Emily and I were married in 2011. I go up and down a little, but I’m able to stay at a healthy weight.

‘FITNESS IS A FAMILY PROJECT’

DAVID: At one point as you were getting back into shape, you did some pretty extreme training to get ready for big physical challenges—races and other competitions. Toward the end of your book, however, you make it clear that part of your awareness of health and spiritual balance means that, today, you’re making sure to spend plenty of time with your family. In other words, you enjoy a balanced approach to fitness.

How about this year? What’s on the horizon for you?

RAGAN: This past fall I completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time. But I’m not a racer per se. I don’t ever expect to be standing on the podium at the end of an event. My aim is to complete them and complete them well. This spring, I’m going to be in the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington D.C. In the fall, I’m planning on doing a half ironman—basically doing half of all the ironman distances, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.

DAVID: Fitness is a family activity, right? Your wife Emily is a swimmer.

RAGAN: She doesn’t compete in biking or running but she’s an avid swimmer. She teaches swimming and coaches swimming for adults. She has worked with triathletes.

‘WHAT IT MEANS TO BE CREATED BY GOD’

DAVID: As readers get into your book, they’ll discover that you’re a humble storyteller. You’re not glorifying your own accomplishments like some of the celebrity trainers these days. Your real goal is to convince readers that caring for our bodies is an important part of caring for God’s entire creation, right? You drop reminders of this idea throughout the book.

RAGAN: I’m glad you picked up on that. Our sense of embodiment and our sense of ourselves as beings created by God go hand in hand. In the kind of Christian church where I grew up, we tended to reject the goodness of creation and to reject the human body along with that. The problem is: If we regard our bodies as just something that will burn up or slough off on our way to heaven—then we lose a proper sense of what it means to be created by God. To be a healthy person, we need to realize that we are wrapped up in a whole ecology of other living beings. There are organisms all around us and even inside of us—healthy organisms in our digestive tract that help us to digest foods—that are a part of our lives.

DAVID: Given your past work—your writing and activism—I would call you an environmentalist.

RAGAN: Yes, certainly. I’m a long-time environmentalist. I was interested from a very early age in exploring the creation all around me. In college, I got very interested in how working landscapes fit into that—not just preserving pristine environments, but exploring how working landscapes like farms are a part of our relationship with creation. I wanted to be part of the effort to encourage both the flourishing of human beings and creation, as well. That’s the way Wendell Barry influenced me and a lot of other people in my generation.

Ekklesia_Project___Fostering_conversations_about_the_Church_among_theologians__pastors__and_congregations_DAVID: In our online magazine, we are publishing a number of interviews with authors who are part of emerging religious  movements. Last week, our cover story featured Doug Pagitt, who is connected with a couple of those new networks. So, I want to ask you about a group in which you’ve been active: The Ekklesia Project.

RAGAN: Yes, I’m an endorser of the Ekklesia Project and I’ve been involved in their conferences for several years, although my schedule prevents me from being involved in their gathering this summer in Chicago. I’m going to be doing clinical pastoral education this summer, as part of my seminary work, so I can’t go this time.

I would describe Ekklesia as a place where clergy, lay people and academics can come together with a common commitment to living out the faith in a really concrete way in the world. People involved in this project are very committed to justice and peace issues and creation care. We want to help Christians maintain an allegiance to their faith over against the competing ideologies of our world today: things like consumerism or nationalism.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by pointing out, once again, that your new book has a compassionate voice. You’re not here to bully us and you’re also well aware that our bodies can’t all wind up running marathons. Our online magazine does a lot of work with the many caregivers living among us.

RAGAN: I realize that we live in a world that is filled with a lot of brokenness and that sometimes includes our bodies. I’ve had health issues myself. I know people who live in deep chronic pain. This summer, my pastoral work will be in a retirement facility. I’m well aware that lots of people have a hard time accepting the idea that our bodies are a good gift from God.

But I do hope readers will walk away from reading this book with a sense of our bodies as part of the creation that God called very good—and that, even with the current brokenness we may feel in our bodies and in our world, there still is hope.

I hope that readers will leave this book encouraged to embrace our bodies and our world in a new way.

STAY TUNED!

ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious ideas and movements emerging. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

Look for these “Cover Story” author interviews on Mondays in March, April and May 2015. Make sure you get all of our upcoming stories: Sign up for our free email updates as new stories are published by clicking on the “Get FREE Updates by Email” link at the top of this page. Or, visit us anytime via our new Facebook page.

SHARE THIS WITH FRIENDS …

You are free to repost or to print out this interview to share with friends. We only ask that you include this credit line: “Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.”

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The Barbara Mahany interview on ‘Slowing Time’

Cover Slowing Time by Barbara Mahany

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

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

Barbara Mahany, that’s who.

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

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

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

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

Outside!?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Mahany

Barbara Mahany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Meditations spring from absolute ordinariness’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Little epiphanies all day long’

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

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

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

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

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

I agree: Pay attention!

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsNatural World