In ‘For the Life of the World,’ Miroslav Volf argues: ‘Christian theology has lost its way …’

Reclaiming the Question:
What is flourishing life?

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

The Communists helped us. They stripped our faith of all the superfluous things. … Only someone willing to make a personal sacrifice could make a confession of faith. Young people entered the church because they understood this sacrifice.
The Rev. Vaclav Maly, who suffered imprisonment and torture in Prague before the end of Communism.

It sounds paradoxical but, under the oppression, we felt that everyday improved our spiritual life. I think it might be even a bit boring now that we are free.
Artist and mystic Otmar Oliva, talking about Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Christian theology has lost its way because it has neglected its purpose.
Miroslav Volf, writing in For the Life of the World, published in 2019 and available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

You can’t fully appreciate the prophetic power of Croatian-American theologian Miroslav Volf’s new manifesto: For the Life of the World, Theology That Makes a Difference—unless you are aware of what was happening exactly 30 years ago.

At that time, Eastern Europe was turning on its head. As a senior writer for Knight-Ridder newspapers in that era, I was sent to Eastern Europe with a colleague to spend a couple of months traveling across what we had been calling “the Eastern Bloc.” Our mission? We were assigned to document and write what turned out to be an award-winning American newspaper series about the catalytic role of religious groups in spurring revolution. This happened because my colleague, Roddy Ray, and I had been watching countless U.S. news reports about these revolutions that were topping one Communist regime after another. At the same time, Roddy and I realized that this reporting was produced largely by foreign correspondents who had no understanding of religion. We knew that we had to step in to report the larger story.

In one Eastern European nation after another, Roddy and I tracked down key sparks of revolutionary ignition to rallies inside churches, to courageous pastors, to spiritually minded artists and writers and to prophetic religious leaders. Thanks to our series of stories, American newspaper readers learned of names like Vaclav Maly in Prague and Laszlo Tokes in Romania—and many others, as well.

In one story, I simply described Maly’s tiny apartment, where the light fixture in the ceiling had been partly dismantled to remove the electronic surveillance devices from the Communist authorities. Nearby was a round hole in Maly’s wall where the rock-hard plaster and lathe had been crushed inward.

“That is where they picked me up bodily and rammed my head into the wall during one of the interrogations,” he told me. “Luckily, the wall broke before my head did.”

I met a priest who was emerging from years of imprisonment in a stone quarry, determined to help rebuild the church. Another priest was trying to clean the oil stains from the floor of his church, which had been used as a garage for police vehicles for years. I met a rabbi who was re-opening a cobweb-strewn synagogue.

One night in Prague, I was astonished to sit up long after midnight with 20-something activists in a tiny, book-lined apartment where they gathered to discuss theology as if this was the turning point of their world. What kept these men and women up half the night in impassioned debate?

They were discussing the coming centennial of a Vatican encyclical, Rarum Novarum, about God’s vision for proper relationships between capitalists and laborers and between governments and citizens. Writing in the midst of what he called “the spirit of revolutionary change” in 1891, Pope Leo XIII, wrote passionately about the divine value of each person’s life—even the poor and oppressed. For the young activists in that apartment, Leo’s questions about the purpose of human life and work were as relevant as that morning’s newspaper headlines.

And this explosion of spiritual wonderment was not limited to the cities—or elite intellectuals in university towns. I also wrote about an Orthodox family in the remote mountains of Transylvania prying up the floorboards of their bedroom to bring out priceless icons hidden away for decades.

Here is how Tokes summed up that era in an interview, as I quoted him in that newspaper series:

“Churches managed to survive four decades of communist attempts to suppress them, generally because they preserved eternal values—moral values that our societies now need very much for the future. … Through these years, the churches’ strength was that they remained the only organized alternatives left for people to the totalitarian governments.”

Here Is Where Miroslav Volf Begins …

That is why Volf’s new book, which he calls “a manifesto,” begins the way it does—with memories from Eastern Europe in the 1970s. (You can read an excerpt here.) The question that this book raises is deeply troubling—almost heartbreaking—to anyone who lived through the turbulent transformation of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.

Across that entire region of the world, a new vision of human purpose seemed to be emerging. Men and women who cared deeply about their spiritual values—everyday theologians—were willing to risk their lives to carve out a better way of life. Many were imprisoned, tortured and died as a result. When that happened, more and more arose to swell their ranks.

Here is how I reported on just one of those scenes in November 1989:

In one of the climactic rallies that helped push the revolution to victory, the Rev. Vaclav Maly and other dissidents addressed a crowd of 500,000 gathered along the Letna Plain, a huge riverfront park on the northern edge of downtown Prague.

At one point, a young police officer unexpectedly appeared at the podium and admitted that he had been among the police who had beaten a group of student protesters earlier that month. He begged for forgiveness.

Maly then talked about the need for forgiveness, asked the crowd to forgive the officer, then led his huge audience in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

Rita Klimova, a Jewish dissident who became the Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States, agrees that oppression actually has helped the church flourish. “It took the communists to make the citizens of Prague kneel on the pavement for the Catholic Church.”

That scene on the Letna Plain is one of the purest examples of theology in action I have ever seen in my 40-plus years as a journalist.

Theology as ‘An Alternative’—But to What?

Now, three decades later, Volf grabs his readers by the lapels on the first page of his book—and demands to know:

So, what happened!?!

In an interview about his new book, Volf told me: “In those years under these authoritarian regimes, the interest in theology—and, more broadly, the interest in the Christian faith, provided us an alternative safe space. We could think about questions of life and offer something like an alternative to the totalitarian powers that were holding our countries in such a tight grip.

“The problem was that, once the oppressive hand was lifted, many theologians were unable to shift to seeing their role and to continue to offer an alternative—this time to the emerging order in these countries. As a result, they became marginalized. Once the totalitarian regimes were gone, many thought their job was accomplished and there seemed to be little more for them to do.

“What I’m saying in the opening section of this book is that the motivation behind the vibrancy of theology for me, in those days, was the idea that we were exploring an alternative vision of life. But that alternative vision was not simply opposition to authoritarian regimes. We also were holding up a vision that was an alternative to capitalist and liberal orders, as well.

“There are still fundamental questions we can help people to answer for the good of the world.”

What You Need to Know about ‘For the Life of the World’ …

The first part of Volf’s case—about the explosion of creative theological activity across Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s—is largely unknown to most Americans today. However, the second part of his case seems more obvious: Theologians have lost their way.

Are you questioning that sweeping conclusion? Quick! Can you name a famous, living theologian?

To be fair, Volf points out in this book that everyone is a potential theologian. “I tend not to make a sharp line between professional theologians and the kind of ordinary theologian that every thinking Christian is,” Volf said in our interview. “Obviously there’s a difference in training and in the sheer amount of time devoted to the subject matter if one is a professional theologian. But fundamentally theology is about discerning and articulating the character of faith. In that sense, I don’t see theology as simply looking at Christianity from the outside and describing what’s going on in Christian communities—rather, I see theology as being the very ideational side of everyday life.”

Pew Research reports that, today, nearly half of all Americans (40 percent) regularly experience moments of wonderment about the meaning and purpose of life. That’s a starting point, of course, for what Volf is trying to encourage. That basic “ideational” instinct necessary for theological inquiry still is alive and well.

The bulk of Volf’s book is a systematic analysis of the failure of our more official theologians, today, to reclaim the basic purposes of their vocation. They are missing the opportunity to help shape the general wonderment of men and women into a meaningful theology, he argues.

Of course, the next question for Volf has to be: So, what should be the purpose of Christian theology? Volf and his co-author Matthew Croasmun write, “We believe the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.” (Our non-Christian readers should be reminded that Volf also is internationally known for his interfaith peacemaking and for important books on inter-religious dialogue such as A Common Word and Allah.)

The central theme of this new book, then, is “flourishing life.” So, think about that phrase for a moment! When was the last time you recall a news headline about a theologian—or any regional religious leader for that matter—talking about anything close to that exciting idea. What we get in public media, instead, are religious leaders endlessly debating rules and regulations and, even more tragically in 2019, the moral failures of their entrenched hierarchies.

You may be thinking: What about the popular prosperity preachers we see on TV? Are they theologians of “flourishing life”? But, Volf’s response is a resounding: No! Flourishing life is a vision that stands in stark contrast to the selfish desire promoted by name-it-and-claim-it, get-rich-quick preachers.

“The idea of flourishing life has been used especially in recent philosophical and psychological discussions about the nature of a desirable human life,” Volf said in our interview. “It’s in the tradition of talking about ‘the good life’ or ‘the true life’ or ‘life that is truly worth living.’ This is a vision of human life as it ought to be—something toward which we can aspire in our own lives and in the world as a whole. You might call this ‘human fullness’ in contrast to a life that simply echoes all the values and messages that surround us.

“I am asking questions like: How should we fill our time? What should we aspire to be? What kinds of things should we want? And what kind of human beings should we desire to be? Today, it is so easy to simply live by acquiring things, perhaps resources or knowledge or fame or wealth. We love social media and we want those clicks in our lives. If we get more clicks, then we must matter in the world.

“The questions I am asking used to be at the core of university life. The question of the good life—the meaningful life—was the central pillar of university life for centuries. Then, over many years, it was marginalized. Now, what universities do primarily is try to explain the world and teach people how to manipulate the world. The real questions are forgotten: How should we live? What should we do? Why should we manipulate the world in these ways? Try to raise those questions in a university setting and, now, they seem to be questions above everyone’s pay grade.

“We are ignoring the most important human questions of all time.”

Get a Copy for Your Small Group or Class

There are portions of this relatively short book that may be described as “a bit academic” for everyday lay readers. But this historic moment of global turbulence in 2019 and the over-arching energy of Volf’s manifesto make this so powerful and timely that we urge readers to dive into this book. If you do, you’ll almost certainly want to share portions of it with friends and perhaps discuss this book in your small group or class.

In our interview, Volf acknowledged that portions of this book are directly addressed to fellow academics. Volf and his co-author are both based at Yale.

“But there is a larger message in this book and I hope that readers will consider what we are saying,” Volf said in our interview. “I am hoping they will understand the importance of these questions. I hope that some readers will come away from this book saying: ‘Wow! This question of the flourishing life may be the most important question of my life.'”

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Excerpt from Miroslav Volf’s new ‘For the Life of the World—Theology That Makes a Difference’

AN EXCERPT FROM … the opening pages of For the Life of the World—Theology That Makes a Difference, written by Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. You will also want to read David Crumm’s reporting about this new book, based in part on a new interview with Volf.

VOLF—I grew up in a place and at a time when we, a small group of teenagers who knew no better, thought that no intellectual endeavor could possibly matter more than doing theology. The time was the early 1970s. The place was Tito’s Yugoslavia and, for me specifically, a house in Novi Sad at the end of a dirt road—in fact, two small rooms that my father, a confectioner turned Pentecostal minister, had built in its courtyard with his own hands. From its windows, through low-hanging branches of a cherry tree, I had a fine view of an electrical substation at the edge of a swamp. …

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

I started spending days and nights in one of these two makeshift rooms reading the Bible, C. S. Lewis, Plato, Bertrand Russell (yes, go figure!), and, later, Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Simone Weil, and Joseph Ratzinger—and teaching myself English and Greek in the process. I was part of a small group of young theological enthusiasts. Except for its oldest and most zealous member, who had read the entire Bible, cover to cover, thirteen times in the first year of his faith journey, all of us were, roughly, halfway through high school.

For us, theology was about the unbreakable tie between human transcendent longing and our mundane strivings, about the power of Jesus Christ, the Word of God and the Lamb of God, which stood in irreconcilable contrast to the power of soldiers, ideologues, bureaucrats, and secret service agents; it was about the right of persons—about our right, too, of course—to determine the shape and the direction of their individual and social lives, rather than, like some wound-up tin soldiers, to simply march in unison to the drumbeat of a failing revolution.

Theology was about a new world coming from God and in God’s way, a new social order whose creation and survival wouldn’t demand thousands on thousands of dead as did the order in which we were born—my own father having come a hair’s breadth from becoming one of them. In short, theology was about the truth and beauty of human existence in a world of justice, peace, and joy.

For us, no endeavor could matter more than doing good theology—though for me personally getting hold of a pair of US-made Levi’s bell-bottom jeans, Italian platform shoes, and a tight-fitting Indian gauze shirt wasn’t far behind in importance. As we spent our days and nights (yes, lots of long nights) reading and arguing about all matters theological, we had no idea that out in the wide world of Western academies, where we all wanted to study, theology was in a serious crisis.

VOLF and CROASMUN—Like disoriented and impoverished descendants of a monarch long deposed, some of us theologians live under a cloud of doom and futility, nostalgic for the glory and power of our ancestors but hopeless about the future. Theology had its time, but that time is no more. It would have been better, we think, had we given up long ago on the untimely endeavor and devoted our energies to more reputable academic pursuits or some more useful activity.

Others among us feel like impoverished but proud aristocrats, with fraying clothes and crumbling dwellings but a soaring sense of self-importance. We continue to do well what theologians have always done—what we feel theologians have always done—but we do so with a big chip on our shoulders. If only other academics or the general public would recognize our greatness and pay attention to the fruits of our wisdom, ancient wisdom, God’s wisdom! If only some rich heiress would fall in love with us and return the proper luster to our clothes and dwellings!

Still other theologians, perhaps the majority of us, have acquired democratic sensibilities and settled into daily routines as “knowledge producers” employed by institutions that compete in global markets. We teach our courses and write reviews, scholarly articles, and an occasional book. We work hard to accomplish what it takes to get tenure (and nervously bite our nails through the process). We have a job, and we want to do it well: to add our own grain of intellectual sand to the vast metropolis of knowledge and to instruct students about a tradition that we aren’t sure is truly alive anymore.

In one way or another, theologians seem to have lost theological eros, our sense of divine calling to grapple with the ultimate questions of human existence and of the world’s destiny.

VOLF—By now I have been a student of theology for forty-five years, thirty-five of them as a teacher. In a sense, I wrote this book to give myself a reason to keep faith with the dream of the teenager-theologian I once was. But my concern isn’t primarily autobiographical integrity; after all, platform shoes or their current equivalents don’t matter to me nearly as much now as they did then. My concern is the self-marginalizing and self-defeating response of theologians to the obsession with acquisition of resources and entertainment in the broader culture and especially to the dominance of the sciences in modern universities.

Along with other scholars in the humanities, we theologians have sought to recast our discipline so as to acquire a legitimate home in the great edifice of science, but instead we have “dug a hole and pitched [ourselves] to its bottom.” The price we paid for the right to make at best marginal additions to the storehouse of knowledge was the loss of the ability to address the most profound and important questions of human existence, which the sciences, by the very nature of their methodologies, are unable even to take up, let alone to answer.

I became a student of theology in search of true life in the midst of a false one; I am a theologian now for that same reason. This book explains why and invites others to join the endeavor

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Inspiring Stories of Courageous Compassion: Pick up the Portable New eBook of ‘Blessed Are the Peacemakers’

“In these pages, you will meet heroes.”
From the first page of Blessed Are the Peacemakers

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

In this era when far too many international leaders are bullies, we need to celebrate real heroes who dare to champion compassion over conflict.

That’s why our publishing house is releasing the Rev. Daniel L. Buttry’s inspiring collection of these heroic stories, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, in an inexpensive and easy-to-carry eBook edition.

Now, you can have all of the real-life stories in this book ready to read wherever you go—on your Kindle, Nook, Kobo or the free eBook app on your smartphone or tablet. Reading these uplifting stories is the perfect way to lift your spirits whenever you find a few minutes free in your day.

Will you find yourself waiting for an appointment this week? Then, just pull out your smartphone, tablet or e-reader—and soon your spirits will be lifted by reading one of these accounts of peacemakers who risked everything to make the world a better place.

Are you among the millions of Americans who include a little inspirational reading with breakfast, each morning? This eBook has enough individual readings to provide months of day-by-day inspiration.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers—
Easy Links to Find Your eBook

It’s easy to find the eBook you prefer: For Amazon devices (including the free Amazon smartphone app), you’ll want Kindle. Millions of Americans own a Barnes & Noble Nook. Apple fans can find Blessed Are the Peacemakers now in iTunes and iBooks. This new eBook version also is available on Google Play. Own a Kobo? We’ve got a version for you, too!

Who Are These Peacemaking Heroes?

In the pages of Blessed are the Peacemakers, you will meet more than 100 heroes, but most of them are not the kind of heroes our culture celebrates for muscle, beauty and wealth. These are peacemakers—and the world needs to hear their stories now more than ever.

In the opening pages of his book, Dan describes the yearning for hope felt by so many of us today: “How can we dare to hope? How can we keep pushing against the tide of violence? When one war is finally brought to a weary end, another breaks out with horrifying ferocity. There is no end to the work of peacemaking.”

Dan’s “book readings” turn into spirited storytelling sessions in which Dan likes to share especially from the lives of heroic men and women he has known and worked with on peacemaking projects. Dan believes that sharing these stories, person by person, really can make a difference in our world.

Buttry is an ideal guide, because he has worked with many of the peace movements he describes in this book. On the day this new book was published, Buttry was planting trees in Kenya as various sides in a deadly political conflict came together in a powerful demonstration of healing in that African nation. After planting the trees, Buttry distributed copies of this book to the Kenyan activists—because sharing these stories is so important in the cause of peace.

Here are just a few of the names you’ll find in sections labeled:

  • PROPHETS and VISIONARIES: Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Helen Caldicott, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu.
  • LITANY OF MARTYRS: Anne Frank, Victor Jara, Stephen Biko, Jerzy Popieluszko.
  • NONVIOLENT ACTIVISTS: Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bolivian Women Hunger Strikers, Daniel Berrigan and Philip Berrigan, Lech Walesa.
  • ARTISTS: Pete Seeger, Arnold Ap, Vaclav Havel, Vedran Smajlovic, Zargana, Banksy, Bono.

That’s just a sampling of the individual chapters. Plus, there are complete sections on Peace Theorists, Advocates, Trainers and Teachers, Organizers and Mediators.

If you don’t recognize a lot of these names—then you have discovered the main purpose of this book. When you’re finished reading, you’ll be able to help lift up these unsung heroes and spread awareness of what is possible when courage connects with compassion.

Already Own a Book by Daniel Buttry?
Here’s Where This Book Fits in His Library

If you are reading this far, today, you may already own some of Daniel Buttry’s earlier books. He also collected stories of international peacemaking in books called Interfaith Heroes Volume 1 and Volume 2. Those books focus specifically on men and women who dared to cross religious boundaries to save lives, make peace and build stronger communities.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers is intended to cover an even broader horizon than the stories included in those earlier two volumes. Peacemakers complements them by continuing in a similar style. However, none of the stories are repeated. So, if you enjoy Buttry’s approach to storytelling, then you might want to collect all three of these books, which are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well.

Here’s a link to Dan’s Amazon Author Page to learn more about his other books.

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Martin Davis: ‘The Letter’—knitting rich new bonds through a medium strong enough to bear the weight

“Grace to you and peace …”
—how Paul opened his early letters

“This is my letter to the world …”
—how Emily Dickinson began one of her most popular poems

“I think I should give my reason for being in Birmingham …”
—words penned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that echoed around the world

EDITOR’S NOTE: We welcome these occasional columns from veteran journalist Martin Davis in which he explores, through his own family life, the experiences of a growing number of Americans seeking deeper meaning in life outside the realm of organized religion. As a people, that doesn’t mean we’re turning away from spiritual answers. In fact, Pew Research shows that millions of us have regular experiences of wonderment about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Down through the millennia, countless men and women have experienced those moments. Some responded, as Martin has, by picking up pen and paper—and writing a letter. We wouldn’t have the Christian church today if Paul hadn’t written his letters, which pre-date the Gospels. Dickinson’s missives—in the form of verse—transformed American literature. King ignited the Civil Rights movement with his famous letter.

Welcome, Martin, as a regularly contributing writer to our online magazine …

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The Letter

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Writer

My youngest son left for Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, not long ago.

He carried little with him.

The Marines, more than most other branches of the military, completely cut off recruits for the majority of their 13 weeks on the Island. They’re allowed no electronics, no computers, no Apple Watches, no modern form of communication whatsoever once they step on the bus.

Upon arrival, they’re afforded one tightly scripted phone call that lasts all of 10 seconds. They say they’ve arrived, you’ll get information later on how to mail, and the line goes dead. There isn’t even time to say “I love you.”

Just like that, the child who for the better part of 18 years texted me 40 times a day about every little detail—suddenly went silent.

The next day, I picked up my pen, an 8.5 x 11 inch piece of notebook paper, and began to write:

Dear Austin:
You’ve got this.
We’re all very proud of you.
Stay strong, and Semper Fi!

As I dropped the letter in the mail, I realized how little we really communicate in a world of mass communication. Sixteen words was all I could muster. Sixteen good words, to be sure, but missing were any passion, any connection, any feeling that shows there’s more between us than what we might find in a greeting card.

I followed up the next day with a second letter, including details about the people we know who ask about him. Tidbits about his friends who are still in high school. The scores to the hockey games. Even a bad-Dad joke.

But I also started writing about the future–his future. The courage he needs to stand strong. The stamina he’ll need to endure the rigorous training that builds America’s elite fighting men and women. And the commitment it takes to survive in this world.

In between my expressions, I found myself also using greeting card lines that now sound more real, more honest, because they’re wrapped in the bonds that have formed over the course of our lives.

Every day I return to my pad and pen. The letters grow longer, more personal, more spiritual, more human.

I miss my son. I miss his voice, his smile, his grumpiness, his messiness, his passion. I miss our conversations about football, politics, family, and fears. I miss our arguments–even the heated ones.

By putting pen to paper, I was resurrecting his spirit daily—and lifting my own.

Now, I realize that these epistles also are beginning to chart the spiritual realm we share.

  • Faith in what we can’t control: He’s gone. He has launched his own life and will never again be in our home as our charge–only a guest who is always welcome. But my faith in him is boundless.
  • Hope in things not seen: We know that he will be fine, come what may. We know he will doubt that on occasion—but we never will. He has shown he’s embraced the lessons of following your own heart by having the courage to step out from home and onto his own.
  • Joy in tomorrow: No matter where he may be. Parris Island or Paris, France; Camp Lejune North Carolina or a Firebase in Afghanistan. We are always with him. And that is a source of joy for both of us.

In our letters, we are knitting new bonds. We are learning a new, richer way to communicate. And we are learning to live lives of spirit, because the flesh is too far apart.

It’s a lot to put in one letter. But only a letter seems an adequate medium to bear that burden.

 

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Benjamin Pratt: Reflections from a life-long caregiver on National Caregivers Day 2019

Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations. …
Yet—you turn us back to dust and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
From Psalm 90

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

EDITOR’S NOTE—There are a number of annual observances to honor the nation’s millions of caregivers. The third Friday of February currently is one of those times to use #NationalCaregiversDay hashtags and thank those you know personally. That’s easy to do because most of us know a caregiver in our families or neighborhoods. After devoting many years to service as a caregiver himself—and teaching other caregivers through his talks and his popular book—Benjamin Pratt now has discovered he’s on the receiving end of these services! Here’s a special Thank You from Ben. Please, express your own appreciation this week!
—David Crumm

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author of Guide for Caregivers

Once upon a time, I sat on the floor with my 6-year-old grandson while he used blocks to build a wall—replete with small buttresses. In wonderment, I silently watched his little tongue move deftly in his mouth as if it too could guide his fingers in the placements of the blocks.

The wall grew higher and higher and finally—as he tried to crown that wall with the final two bricks—the entire structure began to sway. He panicked and quickly tried different placements of the final blocks, but to no avail. As the wall irresistibly crashed into ruins at his knees, he burst into tears.

Of course, I was right there to comfort and encourage him.

For my entire life of more than 70 years, I have served as a caregiver in one form or another.

When I was just a child myself, I helped to care for my mother who suffered incapacitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Defining caregiving in its broadest sense, I simply kept going in my vocation. I became a parent—and a pastor in a diverse congregation. Later, I served for many years as a pastoral counselor. When my wife Judith experienced years of debilitating migraines, I was by her side to help her through those harrowing times.

Eventually, I “wrote the book” on the spiritual needs of caregivers!

Wherever I have traveled—and whenever I have written about the challenges of caregiving—I always have been greeted with warm responses from strangers who introduce themselves with stories from their families.

A few years ago, I wrote an online column about a foot washing conducted as a part of a wedding ceremony—as a symbol of humility, hospitality and service shared by the new couple. I was overwhelmed with readers all around the planet sharing my story! In fact, that 2014 column has become one of the most-read and widely shared columns in the history of www.ReadTheSpirit.com magazine.

And now?

Now, I feel like my grandson watching his walls crumble!

I’ve always been active. Judith and I love to travel and hike—and bike! We once made a lengthy bike ride from Pittsburgh to the Washington D.C. area—350 miles in seven days!

Now, due to major surgery on a lower limb, the only way I travel past our front door is seated firmly in a wheelchair that Judith pushes. I can’t even imagine trying to take these wheels on one of our cross-country, open-air adventures! I know many wheelchair-bound athletes have performed such amazing feats—but I’m in my 70s now and truly feeling my limitations.

As the Psalmist says: We gradually turn to dust and, compared with the vast scale of God’s great cosmic Creation, our lives seem like a mere day that passes in a flash.

That’s a somber reminder to me in my wheelchair, I can tell you. This great Caregiver finds himself, now, dependent on care.

For a month, I even rode through the world in my wheelchair with one of the more humiliating attachments to my personal gear—a catheter. It was a weeks-long necessity as I healed from this surgery. And, research shows us, the point of needing a catheter is one of the most telling dividing lines between a person remaining active in the world—or in a local congregation—and beginning that slow retreat into isolation. There’s something about the idea of a catheter that makes most of us squeamish, right?

If you’re still reading this column after that, pause for a moment and think about relatives, neighbors, former co-workers or members of your congregation who you don’t see very often, these days—because their footprint in the world isn’t as big as it once was. Think about the caregivers on whom they depend.

And my message from this wheelchair this week is this: There’s a lot you can do!

I start by practicing what I’ve preached for so many years. Get my book Guide for Caregivers and you’ll find lots of short chapters in which I share my hard-won wisdom.

Just a few examples:

Judith and I have always promised to show each other kindness in the many small daily tasks we undertake each day. However, suddenly, a whole host of those tasks have moved from my side of the ledger over to hers. She used to cook—and I’d clean up. Now, she does it all and I’ve seen her, each night, feel the weariness creep around her earlier and earlier in the evening. At such a stressful time in life, a well-formed practice of kindness toward each other is invaluable.

There’s a chapter in my book about the importance of laughter—and we make a point of laughing with friends as often as we can!

We reach out in many ways, every day. In fact, as a couple, Judith and I have informally adopted several younger couples we have met through our community. We’re good friends—and we’re also pleased to serve in what sometimes amounts to maternal and paternal roles. We never want to allow the crumbling of our physical walls to shut us off from these life-giving relationships.

When we recently told one of our young friends about the debilitating effects of my surgery, this young woman tried her best to compassionately respond. She told us about some painful side effects she had recently experienced after oral surgery—and about her daughter keeping her up all night over the anxiety of a high fever.

I was thankful for her empathetic words. But, I also thought: Count your many blessings now! And learn the spiritual skills for coping as a caregiver—and a care receiver—so you’ll be a wise veteran when the real blocks begin to topple half a century from now!

In my case, I pray that my current disabilities are only temporary. But I am aware that this is just a taste of what is looming in life—as the Psalmist says. It’s a little chilling to read his lines:

The days of our life are 70 years—
Or 80 if we are strong.

Dear Lord, that’s my stage of life!

And then, I remember: Hey, I wrote the book on this! In the opening pages, I tell readers, “Our goal is to restore a new and right spirit in us. Our goal is to restore balance to your spirit—to replace sadness with laughter, fear with hope, exhaustion with vitality, mourning with gratitude, emptiness with joy and burnout with a rekindled passion.”

Then, in my voice as the Guide to Caregivers, I ask readers: “Is your spirit joyous? Are you filled with hope?”

And, today, I can affirm: Judith and I are filled with hope.

Modest hopes, yes. Will more blocks fall from our walls?  We know: Certainly!

I like the way the Psalmist ends his ode to God as our greatest Caregiver. The Psalmist tries to bargain with God. He prays that God will “teach us to count our days—that we may gain a wise heart.” He continues to bargain—begging God to at least grant as many moments of gladness as he has suffered moments of affliction.

And then?

He just keeps going. He just keeps writing.

I can see him sitting there—a man in his 70s who I have to assume has been beat up by life. But he’s a teacher and a writer, like me. I can envision him staring at his hands. And then those hands write this simple closing prayer:

Prosper the work of our hands.
O prosper the work of our hands.

May it be so for the millions of caregivers out there from coast to coast! And may all of us honor them, not only this week, but throughout the year.

After all—we will all, one day, be in their hands—as I find myself today.

Thank you, Judith. Thank you.

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Anni Reinking, author of ‘Not Just Black and White,’ on ‘a bone chilling fear’ in the news this week

EDITOR’S NOTE—It’s one of the greatest fears of any racially blended family—and it happened this past week in an airport involving a tragic mistake made by Cindy McCain, the wife of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain. Claiming to be acting courageously, she wound up targeting an innocent family for police questioning. This is precisely the kind of problem Dr. Anni Reinking explores in her new book, Not Just Black and White. You can read the latest news story on McCain from CNN here—and you can learn more about Anni’s new book here.

Here is Anni’s response to this news …

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‘A BONE-CHILLING FEAR’

By ANNI REINKING
Contributing Writer

Fear.

Fear guides our actions. Fear guides our words. Fear guides our thoughts.

Fear is always at the forefront of my mind as a white parent of a socially perceived black son. Why am I talking about fear and the impact of fear in our lives? Because I, along with other multiracial families, experienced a bone-chilling fear this week.

This past week Cindy McCain, the widow of late U.S. Sen John McCain, made headlines because of her accusations of human trafficking solely based on the “non-matching” skin color of a toddler and a parent. Mrs. McCain, a human trafficking activist, soon was proudly telling a local radio station in Arizona that, “I came in from a trip I’d been on and I spotted—it looked odd—it was a woman of a different ethnicity than the child, this little toddler she had, and something didn’t click with me.”

While I respect Mrs. McCain and her work on human trafficking, I cannot imagine the assumed fear she felt when she wrongly accused, and later admitted to fabricating the story, of a possible human trafficking incident based solely on skin color.

Those are the reports.

Could Mrs. McCain have seen something else that provided a “see something, say something” moment in the Phoenix airport? Maybe. But that was never made clear. Her statements were based on the fact that the child and the mother did not have the same skin color.

My son and I do not share skin color. Could I be wrongly accused of something when traveling with my son?

Yes.

This is not the first time something like this has happened in our country. In 2018, a young biracial teenager was traveling with his white grandmother when they got into an argument. Police officers were involved and assumed the young man was assaulting the white older woman, even though neither one of them ever laid a hand on each other. Eventually, the grandmother had to turn and yell at the police officers that the young man was not a threat, but was her grandson.

I am not comparing human trafficking to racial profiling, however, in both instances assumptions were made that could have resulted in potentially long-lasting results, based in racist ideals some people still hold about how American families should look.

So, as a reminder: We all live in a diverse world. We live in a world with multiracial families and transracial adoption.

Wherever you go this week—and whatever families you encounter—please remember: Family is not based on skin color—but on love.

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Victor Begg’s ‘Our Muslim Neighbors’: Meet a Muslim this year—build a healthier community

“This is what interfaith understanding and friendship is supposed to look like.”
American religion columnist Bill Tammeus in a new column this week

“This book’s importance really is global, considering how often migrants, refugees and Muslims in particular are demonized by extremists around the world. Victor Begg backs up his argument that Muslim migrants benefit American communities with examples from history as well as solid research data. Then, what makes this book most convincing to readers is the simple narrative of his own life as a community builder.”
Algeria-based journalist Larbi Mageri, a leader in the International Association of Religion Journalists

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

Join all of us at our publishing house in making this New Year’s Resolution: Meet a Muslim.

Most Americans have never actually met our millions of Muslim neighbors. It’s time to change that. If we do reach out, we usually discover new friends with similar values—and the entire community is enriched by our new friendships.

This week, we are making this process easier than ever before. You can meet Victor Begg, his wife Shahina and their entire family in the engaging new memoir, Our Muslim Neighbors—Achieving the American Dream, an Immigrant’s MemoirVictor welcomes readers into a fascinating family story in which readers are likely to recognize the personalities of their own mothers, fathers and other family and friends.

Readers certainly will recognize their core American values and will enjoy reading about Victor’s courageous attempts to live out those values, sometimes in the midst of tragedy.

“This is a true blue American story—my story of how I came to this country and built a successful business and a life for my family that contributed to our community in so many ways,” Victor said in an interview this week. “Along the way, I realized that most Americans don’t know any Muslims and that heightened bigotry arises because people don’t know that our families are just like their families. We share so many community and spiritual values—and we would discover that if we simply reached out—if we simply got to know each other.”

That’s also what Bill Tammeus, one of the most respected religion writers in the U.S., concluded after reading Victor’s book. Here’s a sample of what Bill wrote (and what already has been reposted for readers around the world on the huge Islamicity web hub):

This is a highly personal story, but Begg’s experience and thinking can encourage all Americans to get to know their Muslim neighbors—to say nothing of neighbors of all other (and no) religious traditions. When people are religiously illiterate, it can lead to fear, which can lead to hate, which can lead to violence. We’ve been there before. This book is a helpful road map in a better direction.

NOTE—Victor’s book will be released this week (on February 5, 2019) and can be ordered right now in paperback and hardcover, as well as Kindle, from Amazon. The book also is in paperback and hardcover from Barnes & Noble. You can also order a copy directly from the Front Edge Publishing house in paperback or hardcover.

BY THE NUMBERS—
WHY MEETING A MUSLIM MATTERS

Author Victor Begg is an experienced public speaker and group leader. He’s already scheduling appearances across the U.S. Contact him via his website if you’re interested in inquiring about his schedule.

We’re urging you to talk with friends about this book. Tell them about the importance of getting to know a Muslim neighbor. Perhaps you’re a member of a congregation with a small group or class that could read and discuss this book—to encourage friendly interactions in your friends’ neighborhoods and workplaces.

So, how do you convince friends of the importance of taking this step?

Here are some facts (and links you can follow) to help you make a persuasive request:

First, the Pew Research Center has conducted the largest single body of ongoing research into attitudes among Muslims around the world—and attitudes toward Muslims in the U.S. You can search the vast Pew website for the latest news, starting at Pew’s web hub on Muslim Americans.

One very helpful starting point is this report from 2017 that describes how important it is to interact with Muslims in a friendly way. You’ll learn how much these neighbors appreciate the kindness of a cordial greeting. Pew researchers report that “49 percent of Muslim Americans say someone has expressed support for them because of their religion in the past year. And 55% think Americans in general are friendly toward U.S. Muslims, compared with just 14% who say they are unfriendly.”

In fact, the report shows, when neighbors have friendly conversations, they discover that the vast majority (that’s 89 percent!) of American Muslims say they are both proud of their faith and proud to be American.

In his new book, Victor’s description of his “true-blue American” approach to life is not an unusual experience. In fact, Victor is expressing the widespread viewpoint of Muslim families coast to coast—just as the data show.

Who Is a ‘Typical’ Muslim?

You may wonder why this memoir was written by an immigrant from India—and not an Arab-American Muslim. Is that unusual?

No, it’s not. Immigrants from India and Pakistan are among the most common Muslim newcomers in the U.S.

Here’s another helpful Pew report for answering any questions friends may have about who they should consider a “typical” Muslim family. The answer is: Muslims come from all over the globe, including from right here in the American heartland. That 2018 Pew report says, in part:

The immigrant experience is deeply ingrained in the fabric of Islam in America. Most U.S. Muslim adults (58%) hail from other parts of the globe. … They come from a wide array of countries, and no single region or country of origin accounts for a majority of them. … But the U.S.-born share of the American Muslim population is also considerable (42%). It consists of descendants of Muslim immigrants, converts to Islam (many of them black) and descendants of converts.

Evidence to Share …

Then, how do we know that meeting our Muslim neighbors will actually build a healthier community?

There are many studies—both in the form of national surveys and in the conclusions of projects conducted by universities and nonprofits nationwide—that show simply getting to know a Muslim neighbor changes one’s whole attitude.

Here is a commonly cited report you can share with friends. The highly respected Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reports, in part:

Relatively few Americans regularly interact with Muslims. Only eight percent report having had a conversation with someone who is Muslim at least once a day in the past year. About three in ten (29 percent) report occasional interactions with someone who is Muslim, while more than six in ten say they seldom (26 percent) or never (36 percent) have had such a conversation.

And here’s the key in the PRRI report: “Even Americans who have had conversations with Muslims at least occasionally in the past year express much more positive views of Muslims than those who report much less regular interaction.”

‘Our Muslim Neighbors’—
So, What’s in the Book?

First and foremost, this is a family story—as told by a disarmingly honest narrator, who admits his faults as well as claiming his successes. You’ll chuckle over young Victor’s introduction to American business—as a vacuum cleaner salesman! And you’ll learn how he later carved out a regional chain of stores, based on the popular trend of do-it-yourself furniture finishing.

But the Big Story here is the fact that Victor kept landing in the middle of major events in American history—like that fictional tale of Forrest Gump who keeps winding up smack-dab in the heart of current events.

Victor landed in Detroit—an international cauldron of religious and cultural diversity fueled by Henry Ford’s sprawling empire of auto-manufacturing plants. If recalling Henry Ford sounds like ancient history—you only have to scan the February 2 headlines in The New York Times to find breaking news about Henry Ford’s dark side as an anti-Semitic provocateur. As Victor lays the backdrop of his memoir, he summarizes that true story of Ford’s hateful campaign. He tells that controversial story to explain why starting his own career as an entrepreneur in Ford’s back yard was such a challenge for an immigrant of a “different” faith.

Victor finds himself in the center of other historic events, as well. Victor was meeting with regional leaders on the morning of “9/11.” His chapter on how Michigan—and the whole nation—was transformed as a result is a gripping, page-turning section of his book.

Years later, when Victor thought he would retire quietly in Florida, he wound up attending the same mosque once attended by a deeply troubled young man who winds up unleashing a tragic, violent assault on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Suddenly, Victor is back in the national spotlight as a community healer. Since then, he has decided that he can never retire from peaceful activism.

As you read his true stories, you’ll wonder:  Wow! How would I have reacted in those situations? What would I have said about my own faith that might have helped people respond to such tragedy?

You’ll discover that the deepest values of Islam—compassion and justice and hospitality and generosity—mirror the foundations of Christianity and all of the world’s other great religious traditions.

In other words, just as you may recognize some of your own family members in Victor’s colorful family—you’ll also come away recognizing many of your own deepest questions and values.

Here’s how Bill Tammeus sums it up: “The point is that as America becomes increasingly pluralistic religiously, the guidance that Begg provides about how to create solid interfaith relationships is useful anywhere in the country.”

Care to read more?

ORDER THE BOOK—Victor’s book will be released this week (on February 5, 2019) and can be ordered right now in paperback and hardcover, as well as Kindle, from Amazon. The book also is in paperback and hardcover from Barnes & Noble. You can also order a copy directly from the Front Edge Publishing house in paperback or hardcover.

VISIT VICTOR’S WEBSITE—The Internet address is easy to remember. It’s simply OurMuslimNeighbors.com, which also is the title of the book.

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