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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Ben Pratt. Here are …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘EACH DAY CAN BE A PILGRIMAGE’

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

That way, each day can be a pilgrimage.

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’M INTERESTED IN THE STORY’

Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff color flyer thumbnail

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

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

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

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

These moments make the day delicious.

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

BEN: I don’t think that way.

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

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

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

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

‘AT THE BACK OF THE ORCHESTRA’

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

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

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

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

‘WE ARE PEOPLE OF A STORY’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsCaregivingChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

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

Front cover MSU guide 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

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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

Review: ‘Cold War Road Show’ will make you feel safer now

REVIEW BY DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine

PBS American Experience Cold War Road Show DVD documentaryHere’s something to feel truly thankful for this year! Watch The Cold War Roadshow on PBS’s American Experience this week and you will feel safer about our world in just 1 hour.

Global warming? Ebola? The ruthless armies of ISIS? Sure, they’re all critical global concerns we must address as concerned humans. But half a century ago, American life was transformed by the first visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. As a population, “we” lined the streets to see his entourage pass through our nation. What is most remarkable about this? We stood along his motorcade route in stunned silence.

As the documentary about this world-changing 1959 visit explains: Americans were so terrified by the power of this man to touch off a global nuclear war that we didn’t know how to respond.

Khrushchev intended this visit to serve as a full-scale public relations campaign to win over American public opinion. He grinned almost constantly. He showed off his own family and warmly hugged any American children who came within arm’s reach. But his short temper often trumped his charm offensive.

When the mayor of Los Angeles insulted him at a public banquet, Khrushchev exploded. He roared back that Soviet factories were pumping out missiles like sausages and, if Americans wanted to go toe to toe with the USSR, they’d find themselves in a war to end all wars! The film footage from that day shows the mayor’s face going from a confident grin to a jaw-dropping expression of fear at what he had touched off.

One of the best things about this fascinating documentary is the decision by filmmakers Robert Stone and Tim B. Toidze to include interviews with two adults who were children on the front row of this first visit by a Soviet leader to American soil. Susan Eisenhower is Ike’s daughter and now is a highly respected consultant on international commerce. Sergei Khrushchev is the son of the former Soviet leader and an author and consultant as well. These two “kids” provide revealing commentary on what was taking place in that often shocking tour.

One insight? Khrushchev’s son admits that his father had a very short fuse when confronted with insults. At the infamous Los Angeles banquet, when he began boasting about turning out missiles like sausages, the Soviet leader was flat out lying. It was just angry bluster, the son tells us. In fact, the Soviets had produced very few missiles at that point. Of course, that angry exchange left Americans quaking in our boots—and led to increased spying and a dramatic escalation of Cold War confrontations into the early 1960s.

Any American who was a child in that era remembers the “duck and cover” drills we all learned in public schools. This documentary shows a brief clip of the way we did it: Boys and girls all dropping to the floor of our classrooms, crouching under our desks and covering our heads with our hands. Today, the idea seems like the darkest of comedy.

But then, when it comes to global issues right now, Pew reports “Americans don’t care.” Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans told Pew pollsters this year that they want our leaders to focus on domestic issues and stop worrying about global concerns. However, national security remains an almost universal concern and 3 out of 4 Americans told Pew that “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” should be a top national priority. However we may balance those two attitudes—Pew reporting does show that Americans are no longer worried about a worldwide nuclear war ending life as we know it. And that certainly wasn’t the case when Khrushchev flew back to Moscow in 1959!

Watching this hour-long snapshot of America’s nuclear anxiety half a century ago is certain to make you feel more thankful this month!

WANT TO SEE THE FILM?

(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 GroupsMovies and TVPeacemaking

The David Gushee Interview on ‘Changing Our Mind’

David P Gushee Changing Our Mind front cover

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NEWS already is spreading that America’s leading evangelical Christian ethicist, Dr. David P. Gushee, has reversed his traditional opposition to LGBT relationships in a landmark book called, Changing Our Mind. One online news report about his new book racked up 42,000 mentions on Facebook by readers who understand the significance of this new stance by Dr. Gushee.

After 20 books—including the award-winning volume that now is a standard reference book for evangelical leaders, Kingdom Ethics—Dr. Gushee is completely rewriting his ethical and biblical approach to gay and lesbian men and women. The news has been welcomed by families, teachers and religious leaders who realize that traditional evangelical teaching has hurt countless men, women and teens. Predictably, the news also has sparked opposition from traditionalists.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed David P. Gushee about his book. But before we bring you that author interview, here is a convenient outline of other resources you’ll want to consider:

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ETHICIST DR. DAVID P. GUSHEE
ON ‘CHANGING OUR MIND’

CRUMM: Let’s start with the most obvious question: Why now? You are a devout Christian, a serious scholar and you’ve already written enough books to fill a shelf in the library. Now, mid-career, you’ve chosen to reverse yourself on one of the most important issues dividing thousands of churches and millions of families. This is a rare reversal for a scholar of your stature.

In his Foreword to your book, best-selling Christian writer Brian D. McLaren calls this a historic moment and compares your new stance to some others that made headlines. Brian writes: “Older readers will remember when Billy Graham shocked American evangelicals—first, by refusing to segregate his evangelistic crusades, and then, by working with Roman Catholics. Younger readers will remember when Pope Francis shocked Catholics by washing the feet of a Muslim woman, or by refusing to condemn gay Catholics.”

So, David, the first question is: Why now?

Gushee author photo

David P. Gushee

GUSHEE: More with this book than with any other book I’ve written, I have a sense of being carried along by a power that goes beyond me. It’s like these ideas have been germinating underground for a long time.

Now, I feel compelled to do more to address this issue in a public way. I feel that this is the issue of the early 21st century in the way that race was the issue of the 1960s and, in my evangelical world, the way that women’s roles became the issue of the 1980s. By God’s grace, I have evolved into a leader in American Christianity and I feel like I have not met my responsibility up until now to lead on the LGBT issue. Now, I’m ready. It took me a while to get here.

CHRISTIANS ON A JOURNEY

CRUMM: That sense you describe of “being carried along by a power that goes beyond me.” Some of the early endorsers of your book are making this same point. One of the most inspiring, I think, is the strong endorsement by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America from 1994-2011. He calls  your new book “courageous, clear, balanced and … grounded in biblical faith.” And then he writes that your book “will be a challenge to some, an inspiration to others, but a gift to all who find themselves at some point on this journey.”

What he’s saying—and many other Christian leaders are saying, too—is that this is a moment of historic change.

GUSHEE: For a long time as evangelicals we made it impossible for LGBT people to exist around us in an honest way. We allowed no recognized space to be an LGBT Christian. Of course, we know that there are millions of LGBT people in America, but in the spaces we controlled? There seemed to be zero. Of course that means LGBT people were hiding. We were forcing them to remain invisible. That’s a form of marginalization that’s as acute as it gets. We have been saying: In our world, you can’t exist. You can’t exist as a devout Christian. We have been trying to create and enforce environments where it’s impossible for you, as an LGBT man or woman, to exist.

We made people suffer through what we said and taught and, by enforcing this kind of environment where people had to hide, we made people suffer even more.

AN EMERGING JUSTICE ISSUE

CRUMM: One thing that’s important to understand about your response is: You’re not saying, “Well, the culture is changing and we should change, too, to remain relevant.” What’s driving your new work is really an awareness of the suffering that traditionalist Christian preaching and teaching has caused among countless families—not only LGBT men and women but their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

In the opening pages of your new book, Jane Clementi writes about the importance of your book to families who have gay loved ones. Jane and her husband now have co-founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation after their son Tyler was lost to suicide in the wake of that infamous case of cyber-bullying at Rutgers University. Jane concludes her note to readers this way: “Praise God for patiently guiding each of us to this place of new understanding as God moves the Church into the 21st century.” Unless your heart is made of stone, you’ve got to be moved by the Clementi family story.

So, your critics may accuse you of just surrendering to popular culture—but anyone who reads your book will realize that’s not the case. This is a theme that runs throughout your career as a scholar: In each time and place, we must look for those who are suffering and reach out to help.

GUSHEE: You’re right. Popular culture is not my prime motivation.

The prime motivation in all of my work is to help Christians discern what it means to follow Christ faithfully. Just because culture may be moving in one direction does not mean that we should just go along. My doctoral dissertation was on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust where millions in Germany simply went along with the dominant culture.

This is difficult to discern. Sometimes the culture is leading the way in a good direction; and sometimes culture is moving in a direction where the church should dig in its heels. My book addresses that issue directly: Is this change I am describing a surrender to sexual libertinism in our culture? Or is this an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to faithfully follow Christ? I don’t have any doubts about it anymore. This is an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to be faithful to where Christ is leading us.

I would say at the cultural level, while the conservative branches of the church are losing substantial numbers of people and substantial cultural ground on this issue, the responses I’m hearing from the cultural Right demonstrate they’re digging in their heels in a very strong way. Some on the cultural Right are going to be digging in their heels until the very end.

DISCERNMENT TAKES TIME

CRUMM: As a journalist, I’ve devoted my career to covering religion around the world. I’m fascinated by religious leaders who break with tradition on justice issues. Recently, we published an interview with biographer Charles Marsh about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer became one of the first Christian leaders in Germany to publicly oppose the Nazis—way before other Christian heroes followed his example.

I always wonder: How did these heroic Christian leaders decide to step out into the forefront and take such courageous positions? What fueled their decisions? Another example: I’m fascinated by the life of John Wesley who took decades to figure out that slavery was wrong, that it was a Christian justice issue—but finally Wesley became a leading abolitionist and published a stirring anti-slavery pamphlet in 1774.

GUSHEE: It took me basically 20 years to reach this point: 20 years and 20 books before I reached this point of discernment on this issue.

I think that no human being has the bandwidth to reconsider everything at the same time. John Wesley didn’t. Discernment takes time.

In the context and pace of global change today, it may seem as though we’re reconsidering everything every day. But, as a Christian, you inherit paterns of belief and ways the Bible has been traditionally interpreted on dozens and dozens of issues—money, environment, war, human relations, on and on—and something has to arrive in our lives to crack open a settled pattern of interpretation. Usually that takes the form of a transformative experience with people who are negatively affected by that traditional pattern of interpretation. If we encounter the humanity affected and suffering because of a particular pattern of teaching—then our lives begin to crack open and there is space to reconsider.

If you’re a Protestant, then the Bible is your main authority in life. And, if you’re an evangelical, you want to be sure you have a solid biblical base to your thinking. So, I needed to revisit the Bible passages that have been the main cluster of passages raised when this issue is discussed in evangelical circles.

When I began that careful study, I realized that I should have been clued into the flaws in the traditional analysis long ago. None of the passages cited in the traditional arguments about gay and lesbian relationships is a central passage on which we as Christians normally base our lives. Think about what we consider central as Christians: passages like John 3:16 and the parables of Jesus and Jesus’s own teachings. So, I should have realized that there were flaws in that traditional biblical analysis when it rests on passages like the one in Leviticus. Where else in contemporary life do Christians quote Leviticus as a guide for daily living? Yes, there are a couple of passages in the New Testament that are often cited as well, but they’re not the core passages of the Bible on which we rely every day.

The more I studied this, the more I realized: What a disaster! We have allowed a traditionalist reading of a small cluster of relatively marginal passages in the Bible to trump the heartbeat of Christian morality, which is based on the teachings of Jesus. I feel the scales have fallen from my eyes on this. I’m saying we need to treat LGBT people like Jesus commanded us to treat everybody we meet.

A HUMBLE APOLOGY

CRUMM: I was moved by your book, especially the final chapter. You close this book with a humble apology “to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue.”

And that passage made me look back earlier in your career to the years of research you conducted into courageous Holocaust rescuers—men and women who now are called “righteous gentiles.” These people risked their lives, and many actually died, because they were convinced that they should reach out and help the suffering during the Shoah.

I  pulled off my shelf your book, based on those years of research, titled, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation. And, toward the end of that book you write: “Most rescuers … believe that their actions were in fact both morally obligatory and not especially commendable. Their obligation to help Jews seemed perfectly clear to them, and from their perspective a person deserves no praise for fulfilling an obvious obligation.”

Now, years after first publishing that book, you’re publishing Changing Our Mind and you close this new book on a similar note. You’re not asking people to praise you as a great hero. You’re humbling yourself at the end of this book. You’re publishing this book because it’s the right thing to do.

To echo a famous evangelical line: Here you stand; you can do no other.

GUSHEE: I’m really glad you discovered that quote in Righteous Gentiles. You’re right, I was deeply shaped by that research. I spent three years day and night reading about rescuers and researching in Holocaust archives—immersing myself in all of these hidden stories. That was my dissertation and the deepest I thought I’d ever go on researching any topic. Studying these rescuers set my course. I have been attempting to live up to what I learned from them ever since.

I’ve often talked about trying to follow a “rescuer Christianity” rather than a “bystander Christianity” or—even worse—a “perpetrator Christianity.” So, yes, I totally resonate with that quote you just read.

What I’m trying to do is to let Christians know: Here’s an idea. Treat gay and lesbian people just like you’d treat anyone else. Welcome them. Show them hospitality. That’s what we as Christians are supposed to do for everyone. This isn’t rocket science.

And, I don’t deserve praise for having taken 20 years to figure this out. Now that I have, I plan to stand in solidarity with the people we have made to suffer for so long—for the rest of my career. It is the least that I can do.

(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 InterviewsChildren and FamiliesChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

The Matthew Fox interview on Meister Eckhart and connecting peacemakers

Cover of Meister Eckhart by Matthew Fox

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

Wake up your spiritual life with best-selling author, theologian and educator Matthew Fox. In his newest book, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Fox inspires us by connecting dots between the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart—and the lives of visionary men and women in our times who we, at ReadTheSpirit, would call Interfaith Peacemakers.

For our readers who already love inspirational reading, “Matt” Fox is well known as a global leader in opening up almost-forgotten Christian treasures to help heal today’s fractured world.

Matt has had a long, hard journey to this current popularity. In the 1980s and 1990s, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was a religion writer for American newspapers and covered the Vatican’s investigation that eventually drove Fox out of the Catholic church. (He is now an Episcopal priest.) The man behind Matt’s inquisition later became Pope Benedict XVI. Then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, he claimed that Matt was dangerous to the Catholic church, because Matt kept insisting that God created the world in an “original blessing” rather than under the Vatican’s doctrine of “original sin.” In that era, Matt Fox headlines were about the international conflict over what became known as Matt’s teachings on “Creation Spirituality.”

FLASH FORWARD—Today, any reader of inspirational books is familiar with names such as Meister Eckhart and also Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic. For example, brief writings from both of their collected works are sprinkled through the pages of Matt’s 365-day inspirational reader: Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations. (That’s a perfect gift, by the way, for friends who want to start a new year with a commitment to daily meditation.)

During their turbulent lives in the Middle Ages, both Eckhart and Hildegard faced critics. Eckhart actually was condemned by the church. However, in recent decades, the Vatican has warmed to both of them: Pope John Paul II publicly wrote about the importance of Eckhart’s writings; Pope Benedict XVI finally declared Hildegard a saint and, much more significantly, Benedict declared her one of the highly respected “Doctors of the Church.” With that official nod, Hildegard became one of only three women (along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Liseux) to be so honored as a major, Vatican-endorsed, timeless theologian and teacher.

But, today, many readers have forgotten who began pitching for this fresh appreciation of their wisdom as mystics and teachers—way back in the 1980s. It was Matthew Fox, who produced contemporary English-language books on each of them: the 1983 book Meditations with Meister Eckhart and the 1987 book Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. These books represented a major scholarly effort and we can still highly recommend those two books to dig deeper into these mystics’ original writings.

Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox

NOW, as a new century is unfolding, Matt Fox headlines in the news media are about his work as a writer, educator and popular theologian working toward a more peaceful world. As he has traveled in recent years, he has heard from many of his readers that they want help in connecting spiritual dots in the works of Hildegard and Eckhart with other religious heroes who inspire us today. In his 2012 book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, Matt has Hildegard “meet” and compare ideas with a wide range of modern heroes from the poet Mary Oliver and the Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

This summer, in his brand new Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Foxx has Eckhart “meet” and compare spiritual notes with such heroes as Rabbi Heschel, Howard Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marcus Borg and Oscar Romero. NOTE: We are devoting this week’s entire Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website to highlighting our own profiles of these heroes.

As he has many times over the past 30 years, David Crumm interviewed Matt Fox. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF
OUR INTERVIEW WITH
MATTHEW FOX
ON ‘MEISTER ECKHART’

DAVID: I love your technique in these new books, especially this latest one on Meister Eckhart—having them “meet” contemporary men and women as you compare some of their major teachings and show the timeless importance of these ideas. Way back in the late 1970s, I interviewed TV talk-show host Steve Allen when he produced that marvelous series for PBS called Meeting of Minds. For each episode, Steve and his co-writers would have actors dress up as famous figures throughout world history and they would meet, in the TV studio, and talk. Fascinating!

MATT: I do remember watching that series and enjoying it very much.

DAVID: We’ve already dated ourselves, I guess, but let’s fix a dating problem in your Wikipedia entry, today, by establishing your birth date. Based on that Wiki entry, which has been missing your specific birth date, journalists never know your actual age.

MATT: Oh, my birthday is December 21, so I’m 73 right now. I’ll turn 74 in December.

HILDEGARD: ‘Creation formed in love’

Cover of Hildegard of Bingen by Matthew Fox

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

DAVID: I’m 59 and I’m so glad we’ve both lived long enough to get past all the controversy over the Vatican’s inquisition in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, we can actually have some spiritual fun in connecting the dots between these medieval figures and people who many of our readers consider heroes. And let’s start, for just a moment, by looking back at the earlier book on Hildegard.

MATT: I wrote that book when I heard that the Vatican was going to canonize her. And I suspect Benedict did that because he’s German and she’s popular in Germany. But, in my book, I call her a “Trojan horse,” because I don’t think the Vatican is emphasizing her most important messages. When she was alive, she was a great proponent of the divine feminine and I didn’t trust the Vatican to emphasize that properly. Hildegard was very much a critic of the patriarchal church in the middle ages and I think that’s one reason she wasn’t canonized for eight centuries.

In fact, I open my new book on Hildegard with this passage: “I heard a voice speaking to me: ‘The young woman whom you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity … It was love which was the source of this creation in the beginning when God said: ‘Let it be!’ And it was. As though in the blinking of an eye, the whole creation was formed through love. The young woman is radiant in such a clear, lightning-like brilliance of countenance that you can’t fully look at her … She holds the sun and moon in her right hand and embraces them tenderly.”

To me that amazing passage from Hildegard’s visions is a tremendous teaching on what I call original blessing.

DAVID: And then, as the book opens up, you use this technique of having her “meet” various contemporary figures. I like Joan Chittister’s Foreword to that Hildegard book in which she writes: “Those who have lived well for their own time have lived well for all time.”

MATT: Yes, in that book, I put Hildegard in the room with Mary Oliver, Albert Einstein, Howard Thurman and others and then I used that methodology again in my new book with Eckhart.

DAVID: Just to clarify, let’s explain to readers of this interview that your books are not like Steve Allen screenplays. You don’t actually imagine a dialogue between these figures. So, let’s describe your technique this way: You choose central ideas shared by these pairings of people and, then, in each chapter they “meet” as you compare and contrast their teachings. It’s very creative stuff!

POPE FRANCIS: ‘Making up for some very lost ground’

DAVID: After your many decades of feuding with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, I know you’ve got higher hopes for what Pope Francis might be able to do. One of the heroes in your new Eckhart book is Oscar Romero. Were you surprised by Pope Francis’s decision to go 180 degrees on Romero—from banning him as a candidate for sainthood to putting him on a fast track?

MATT: Your readers will remember that Pope Francis is from Argentina and he’s quite aware of the many sacrifices and accomplishments made by the base-community movement and the liberation theology movement. Francis has made strong statements against what he calls “savage capitalism,” which is in line with what Oscar Romero fought for and died for. Francis sees these Latin American movements as very much in line with the spirit of Vatican II. Thanks to the previous two papacies the Catholic Church has been decimated in Latin America and millions have left the church to join new Pentecostal churches. This pope is trying to make up for some very lost ground.

RUMI: ‘One spark flew …’

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad RumiDAVID: Let’s give readers some examples of famous figures, we call them Interfaith Peacemakers, who you introduce to Eckhart in this book. Let’s start with Rumi, the Sufi mystic who, to this day, is still a best-selling poet.

MATT: They were from about the same era, but they did not know each other. Eckhart was 13 when Rumi died. But there is this phrase that comes up often in Eckhart, “spark of the soul,” which is similar to passages in Rumi’s writings. There are lots of connections. I also point out in my book that Eckhart liked to refer to the Muslim philosopher Avicenna, who came before Rumi in the Islamic tradition.

DAVID: You mention the similar phrases.

MATT: One of Rumi’s famous lines is, “Ah, one spark flew and burned the house of my heart.” I compare that with Eckhart’s “In the spark of the soul there is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams, and something like a burning fire which burns incessangly. This fire is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.” So, right there in the opening of that chapter you can see some of the connections.

Eckhart and Rumi were on the same path in many respects. I point out in that chapter that when I published my first big book on Eckhart in the 1980s, the very first response I got was not from a Christian but from a Sufi. I remember he sent me a 12-page article that analyzed passages from Eckhart and he was convinced that Eckhart really was a Sufi. I’ve been thinking about that connection for the last 30 years.

THICH NHAT HANH

DAVID: So, Eckhart might be seen as thinking like a Sufi, but you point out in another chapter that he almost might be considered a Buddhist. You quote Thich Nhat Hanh saying, “If we bring into Christianity the insight of interbeing and of non-duality, we will radically transform the way people look at the Christian tradition, and the valuable jewels in the Christian tradition will be rediscovered.”

MATT: And I quote Eckhart writing, “Love God as God is—a not-God, a not-mind, not-person, not-image—even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”

DAVID: And you point out that the Catholic monk Thomas Merton similarly saw connections. Merton read Eckhart along with his readings in Zen and saw kindred spirits. In the latter years of his life, the Christian-Buddhist connection was a powerful pathway in Merton’s reflections and writings.

MATT: This is another example of Eckhart’s amazing insights as a mystic. As far as I can tell, Eckhart never met a Buddhist in his life and he didn’t study Buddhism. So, how did Eckhart make these connections? Well, the answer is that Eckhart discovered bigger truths by going deep into his soul as a Christian.

Let me read from a passage in that chapter where Eckhart writes about loving God in a way that seems close to Buddhist practice. He writes, “How should one love God? You should love God mindlessly, so that your soul is without mind and free from all mental activities, for as long as your soul is operating like a mind, so long does it have images and representations. But as long as it has images, it has intermediaries, and as long as it has intermediaries, it has neither oneness nor simplicity. And therefore your soul should be bare of all mind and should stay there without mind.”

RABBI HESCHEL

DAVID: I realize that we’re talking in shorthand here—very briefly touching on some of the topics readers will find in your book. I want to continue, in this way, mentioning a few more people in your book. Our readers may find one name we’ve mentioned helpful, another irrelevant, so let’s list a couple more. And, next, I want to ask about your chapter with Eckhart “meeting” Heschel.

MATT: I have tremendous tremendous respect for Rabbi Heschel. He is one of the great religious minds and activists in the 20th century. He marched with Dr. King in Selma much to the consternation of many people who supported Heschel otherwise. He said he wanted to go “beneath the dogmas and traditional formulations of the Judeo-Christian traditions which so often have served as substitute for the root experiences of biblical faith.” He was a great scholar and teacher, yet he did not stay in the comfortable halls of academia. He went out and prophetically acted. He walked his talk.

In the title of my Eckhart book, I use the phrase “Mystic-Warrior” in the sense of a prophet being a warrior. A prophet interferes with injustice. When it comes to compassion and justice, awe and wonder, Heschel and Eckhart are on the same page.

HOWARD THURMAN

DAVID: You’ve got Howard Thurman in your Hildegard book and he’s also a figure you compare to Eckhart. And I should add: If our readers aren’t familiar with some of the figures we’re mentioning here—I’m hoping they’re going back and forth between this interview to our Interfaith Peacemaker series of profiles. Heschel is profiled there and Howard Thurman, too.

MATT: In many ways, Howard Thurman was the spiritual genius behind the civil rights movement. Everytime Dr. King went to jail, he carried his copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him. And Thurman had actually studied Eckhart. As a young man, Thurman studied under the Quaker teacher Rufus Jones, who often cited Eckhart. There are many connections here, but one of them is Eckhart’s sense of social justice.

Eckhart was very aware of the oppression around him in his day and he stood up and was counted by courageously stepping on the toes of the powerful. And that really is what led to his condemnation for many many years—it was a political act against him for his activism on behalf of the poor. Eckhart was the first intellectual to preach in German. At the time, German was associated with the peasants. He was preaching to the peasants in their language about their being noble people who were bringing Christ daily into the world. At the time, this was considered very offensive by the powerful.

MARCUS BORG / JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN

DAVID: And I was pleased to see our friends Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan featured in your new book. You write that Eckhart was a pioneer in sorting out what today we would call “the historical Jesus”—separating Jesus the teacher from the Christ figure who is lifted up by Christianity after his crucifixion.

MATT: In that chapter you’re mentioning, I have Eckhart “meet” three figures in the Jesus Seminar—Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Bruce Chilton. I’m so struck that Eckhart, in his era, was writing about what is often referred to as a breakthrough in contemporary theology—the assertion that the historical Jesus came from the wisdom tradition of Judaism. Eckhart knew this and wrote about it in his time.

No, Eckhart didn’t reach his conclusions in the same way that Borg and Crossan and the others reached it through their textual and historical analysis. They have resources available to them that Eckhart didn’t have. Crossan and Borg followed different forms of analysis, but ultimately we discover that what we’re hearing from people like Borg and Crossan today actually rests on the similar conclusions drawn many centuries ago by Eckhart, based on his reflections on scriptures as a mystic.

DAVID: So what lies ahead for you as you finish this second book in this “meeting of minds” style? You’ve always got so many projects underway.

MATT: Well, you can give readers links to my website and Facebook page and we try to put my updates there. I definitely will keep traveling and teaching and writing more books. I’m blessed with decent health and I plan to keep going. I’m doing an exciting event in October in Mexico where I’ll be in a program talking about reinventing education, which is one of my major passions. Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian, will be on that program, too. I met Boff the year I was silenced by the Vatican myself. I went to Brazil to meet and talk with him, then, but I haven’t seen him in person since that time. I’m told this conference likely will draw about 30,000 people and I’m looking forward to the good work we can do together.

Care to read more about Matthew Fox?

MEET THE PEACEMAKERS—Visit our Interfaith Peacemakers department to read more than 100 inspiring profiles of the kinds of men and women Matt Fox includes in his recent books.

VISIT MATT ONLINE—Matt recommends that new readers start with his main website, www.MatthewFox.org, where you can learn more about Creation Spirituality, learn about his various public appearances and keep in touch with news about upcoming publications. You also can keep in touch via Facebook by looking for Rev.Dr.MatthewFox

GET THE BOOKS—Click on any of our recommended links above. If you’re interested in his 365-day inspirational reader, you might enjoy reading our 2011 interview with Matt about the preparation of that book.

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

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsChristianGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Back to School buzz: News about ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’

Bullying Is No Laughing Matter headlinesTHANKS—to all of our colleagues in news media nationwide who are sharing headlines about Bullying Is No Laughing Matter with their readers. Before we look at some of those news stories, let’s answer a few questions:

THE LATEST NEWS …

What’s the buzz? Here are some of the stories this week …

NEW JERSEY’S ANN BRASCO—She’s the “Parental Guidance” columnist for the 12 newspapers that team up at the NJ.com website. In Ann’s column about the new comic book, she writes about the strong link between childhood and comics: “As a child, I loved to read comic strips. Lively casts of characters and unlikely heroes made me laugh and they made me think. It was exciting to join them on their adventures, to learn the lesson in their mistakes, and I certainly slept a little better at night believing that there was a team of heroes out there a bit braver than I was, who would come to my rescue should I need help. A new team of heroes has now been assembled to address a national epidemic.” You can read her entire column here. (Want to do a good deed right now? Go to Ann’s column, where you can Facebook “like” it or send her another kind of encouraging note. In this era of vanishing newspapers, journalists need your encouragement!)

WHY WRITERS LIKE ANN BRASCO MATTER—Media is so deeply interconnected today that we’ve already seen Ann’s coverage of the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter campaign show up as a recommended link on other websites concerned with parenting and back-to-school issues. That’s one reason Ann’s thoughtful work matters—because others can quickly share it across the Internet. (Have you got a blog, newsletter, Pinterest page or website where you could share a link to Ann’s column? Every time we share this news, it helps.)

King Features Comics Kingdom logoKING OF COMICS—King Features, the huge comics network, is a big supporter of this new comic book. First, King Features published a news story about Bullying Is No Laughing Matter. Then, King recommended the book in a special column that was posted in King’s giant online website for comics: COMICS KINGDOM. In that column, King editors said the anti-bullying comic book is a sign of how much good-hearted comic artists want to help people in need. The column groups the news of the new comic book with news about comic artists joining in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. (Want to see a couple of cool new Ice Bucket videos? Check out this column in the OurValues website. Come on! One of them features Kermit the Frog!)

Mary Worth salutes Bullying Is No Laughing MatterMARY WORTH’S ADVICE—Since the 1930s, Mary Worth has been sharing her sage advice on newspaper comic pages. In recent years, she has tackled every social ill from drug abuse to teen pregnancy. At ReadTheSpirit, we thank Mary Worth for contributing a comic strip to this new book—and now for quickly telling her online fans about the project.

CLEVER COVERAGE FROM NICK GLUNT—In Ohio, the Medina-Gazette’s Nick Glunt cleverly looked through our new comic book to find comic artists who live in his part of the country. “Localizing news stories” has become a mainstay of contemporary journalism. Nick Glunt found that Tom Batiuk, a major contributor to the book, lives in Ohio. Nick began his story: “When nationally syndicated newspaper comic strip writer Tom Batiuk was in grade school, he once saw a girl bullied by his peers and did nothing.” You can read Nick’s entire story here. (Want to localize a story for your readers? Email us and we can tell you if there are local connections with Bullying Is No Laughing Matter.)

(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: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups