Benjamin Pratt: Training to Say Goodbye

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“I think grief is like a really ugly couch.
It never goes away.
You can decorate around it;
you can slap a doily on it;
you can push it to the corner of the room—
but eventually you learn to live with it.”

from Leaving Time, Jodi Picoult

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EDITOR’S NOTE—Contributing writer Benjamin Pratt is the author of books about everything from spiritual discernment and prayer to the need for caregivers to invest time in caring for themselves. You can find Ben’s books at our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore. This week, he shares this brief encounter, a story he calls:

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TRAINING TO SAY GOODBYE

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Human hands. This subject fascinates artists, including Michelangelo (above), DaVinci (shown here) and Escher (below).

“How is it we know each other?”

These were the surprising words of my very close friend and colleague of 45 years.

Less than two months ago, David called to tell me that, in addition to Alzheimer’s, his long-ago-treated prostate cancer had metastasized to his bones. He had nine months to live. He said he had a bucket list of a few people he wanted to see again before he dies. I was at the top of his list—and now he couldn’t remember how we know each other.

David was my teacher, mentor, friend, colleague, confidant, co-therapist— sharing a life as clergy with a calling to pastoral counseling. With our spouses and another couple, along with seven daughters among us, we formed a house church with the hope that our daughters would all be blessed by the wisdom and values of other adults we deeply admired. We shared meals, conversation, music, games, vacations, and lively fun. We all benefited from these long, enduring and sustaining relationships.

The memories still sustain and guide us.

Memories—baked in the fires of life’s events and relationships—are the crafted bricks of identity. Cemented in place by some as-yet-mysterious process—without them I am lost, adrift, off-balance, isolated.

Memory is at the root of relationships, too. I know who I am by the memory of pivotal stories with others.

My very good friend has lost much of his grounding.

My wife Judith and I took the train to North Carolina to visit David and Lynn and their family. “Train” takes on a double meaning as it has occurred to me that I am in training to learn how to say goodbye.

When we first disembarked, we were shocked by David’s gaunt, pale appearance—his frail, diminished body. He has always been lean, so much so that I often teased him that he could sleep in the shade of a clothes line. Walking slowly with a cane, he is now, disturbingly, thinner still.

Our time together was spent as a foursome and as pairs as we shared memories, offerings, gratitude and hopes. Lynn, David’s wife of 50-plus years, and we shared memories in the midst of her describing her physical, emotional and spiritual struggles during this very taxing time as his caregiver. We sought to give her comfort and encourage her to take good, mindful care of herself. When Judith or I shared memories with David, it appeared he sometimes had a glimmer of recognition but not enough clarity that he could hold onto the memory for long.

But there were two questions I asked David that sparked remarkable insight and certainty. He was his old, familiar, wise and thoughtful self.

We had been discussing the limits of our bodies and our mortality. I asked, “David, do you know where you are going?”

Without hesitation he said, “I will have a place to continue being me. I will be with others who have meant a lot to me. And others who matter so much to me now will join me later.” A remarkably clear faith statement—as if the line of the Christmas hymn, “all the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Him tonight,” is imbedded in his soul.

While the four of us were having dinner, I reminisced about our day of sharing memories that were serious, humorous and mysterious. Each of us had expressed our gratitude to David for how he has contributed to our lives. I said, “Let’s turn it around. Tell us how you hope you will be remembered by us and by others.”

Again, with remarkable clarity and precision, David said, “I hope I will be remembered as a man who listened and heard what individuals wished me to hear. I hope they felt I was giving them the attention and respect they deserve. I wanted them to feel important, valued and respected. I hope I responded in a helpful way—so they could know themselves more deeply. I hope my writings and public speeches were understandable, informative, insightful and provocative.”

My friend David—always an hospitable man—is a gentle, compassionate soul.

As we walk part way to eternity with each other, he is teaching me still: this time, how to say goodbye.

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Episcopal Bishop Frank Griswold on ‘Tracking Down the Holy Ghost’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit

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

Why do we need this wisdom from former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold right now? Because, at the heart of this little book is an invitation from a survivor of conflict to walk along with him through various dramatic encounters and discover, in the end, that Spirit can guide us not only to our own individual solace—but toward re-establishing ties in a deeply divided community.

Griswold knows what he’s talking about. He’s most famous as the man at the helm of the Episcopal church when Gene Robinson was elected as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and the entire denomination threatened to implode. Yes, in this book, Griswold briefly describes how he weathered that storm and brought a majority of other bishops to support Gene. But that’s not the main point of Tracking Down the Holy Ghost. The main point of this pilgrimage-in-print is to explore Griswold’s larger faith in the potential to heal our divided world:

“I have learned over the years that moments of resistance and unsettlement are almost always invitations to deeper prayer and greater availability to the motions of the Spirit,” he writes, citing sages including St. Francis, Carl Jung, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Evelyn Underhill, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Flannery O’Connor—to whom Griswold credits his book’s title. For some of our ReadTheSpirit readers, that list of citations alone is so rich and deep that it’s reason enough to purchase a copy of Griswold’s paperback. Don’t you want to know how he assembles that particular jigsaw puzzle of great thinkers?

That’s one of the pleasures of this book—but this is far more than a knitting together of the wisdom of these sages. You’ll turn the pages here because Griswold’s narrative is woven with wonderful nuggets from his own life. Among the most delightful is a true story about Griswold quite unexpectedly encountering and then re-encountering an angel—enough said. Read the book for details about the angel.

Here’s the main reason to take this pilgrimage with Griswold: Anyone who has read this far in this column will agree that we desperately need some spiritual guidance if we hope to survive and heal today’s culture of conflict.

Why This Is So Timely

This next bit of news may be depressing—or it may be inspiring to consider how much our challenge today is a part of our enduring human condition, a challenge faced by each generation.

Preparing this Cover Story, I ran an in-depth search in the archives of The New York Times to find some compelling headlines about the virulent new culture of conflict in America. Much to my surprise, the first headline that popped up was from 1865. It was a front-page story about the turbulent debate ripping apart the Union over what to do with the imprisoned Jefferson Davis following the Civil War!

Not surprisingly, headlines from the Great Depression, the McCarthy era of political witch-hunting, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the Nixon resignation popped up in this search. But I was startled to find: Americans have been facing agonizing challenges to our national unity for two centuries—often in chapters of our history that I assumed had been smooth sailing. Here are just two of the lesser-known snapshots of what Griswold calls American “unsettlement”:

What could have been calmer than the era of “Silent Cal” Coolidge? Not so! In 1925, the White House was accused of fostering a culture of conflict because the Coolidges planned to update the mansion’s furniture and other decor from the era of Teddy Roosevelt. Amazing but true—this touched off a tidal wave of controversy over whether any new president had the right to uproot tradition. While seemingly silly by today’s standards, headlines screamed: “Some Fear a Deluge.”

A haunting 1935 Times news-feature—six years before the U.S. entered World War II and Japanese were truly demonized in American news media—focused on how Japanese immigrants were dividing communities like Los Angeles and posing a challenge to our national unity. The headline asked: Are they “Citizens or Aliens”? The basic message was: These people don’t want to mix with us and that’s causing trouble. The most haunting detail in that 1935 story? The beautiful music at a Los Angeles-based Japanese cultural festival described by the Times reporter was from an exotic town called Hiroshima.

A Timeless Temptation

Frank Griswold in 2018. Photo by Barbara Braver.

In our interview about his new book, Griswold said this culture of conflict is certainly a problem in 2018, but this also is a timeless human temptation.

“We see this today coming from the White House, of course. Almost every day there is this effort to hook us with purely emotional responses. The current president has an incredible capacity to stir raw emotion either against and for various things. Congress is absolutely enthralled with emotion. No one can think logically or clearly or temperately. Everyone is reacting. We’re all held hostage by forces that in the classical Christian tradition would be seen as evil.”

Stepping back, however, as Griswold invites us to do in this new book, we discover that this temptation is timeless. “Go back to the New Testament and the early centuries of the church and you’ll find that the discernment of spirits is a deep part of our tradition,” he said in our interview. “What is driving you? What is loving within you? What rage is inside you? The discernment of spirits became a classical Christian discipline. Just look back to the Desert Fathers. When we allow troubling spirits to overtake us, then we act on raw emotions and our actions can become very disordered and destructive.

“What I’m saying in this book—and when I say when I teach and speak these days—is that the rich tradition of Christian spirituality offers all kinds of insights into the most basic patterns of human behavior. Our spiritual disciplines should tip us off to the ways in which we can get caught up in these distortions. If I had a chance to talk with Congress, I’d say, ‘The basic problem is that none of us can even think clearly right now. Every day there’s some new bit of wildness unleashed from the White House and everybody is reacting out of raw emotion. We need to undertake a major piece of spiritual education to clear our minds and find a better way to pursue our national life.’

“We must discern that there is something larger than us, than our own individual desires,” Griswold said. “I hope that this book in a modest way helps people to at least ask: Gee, maybe there’s something that’s missing in my life that I need to attend to?”

Care to read more?

In addition to ordering a copy of Griswold’s book via the links above, consider our own ReadTheSpirit Bookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore. Both are packed with inspiring writers who can help you find balance and solutions for the challenges you face in life.

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Peter Wallace on Getting to Know Jesus Again in Lent

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

What does Lent mean to you, these days? Perhaps a mention of that word is a reminder of pre-Lenten carnivals or mardi gras or special seasonal pastries loaded with fat and gooey goodness. If you’re a Christian you may think it’s a time to try to give up chocolate, or cigarettes, or foul language—once again. If you’re a Jeopardy fan, it may merely be the response to the clue: The Christian season that leads to Easter.

“But, wait, there’s so much more!” says popular Day 1 radio host and author Peter Wallace. “This season is a wonderful spiritual opportunity.” These weeks could be a chance to move closer to a “life of learning and giving and sharing and growing.” If you are among the 2 billion Christians starting Lent in this new week, Peter says, then making Jesus your daily companion is the best way to step toward that “life you can’t wait to wake up for in the morning.”

“That’s the kind of life Jesus wants you to have,” Peter tells us. “But experiencing it comes from spending meaningful time with him. Reading his words and works in the gospels. Praying. Listening to him. Talking to him. Trusting him.”

Why this Lenten invitation is so timely

Peter Wallace

With a radio show that appears on more than 200 stations nationwide, Peter keeps his finger on Americans’ spiritual pulse—and he created this new book because he understands this opportunity.

Viewed from the overall perspective of sociologists, Lent isn’t faring all that well as an observance worldwide. A majority of Americans still say they are Christians, Pew Research tells us, but millions of those Christians ignore Lent—either because they are part of Protestant churches that never emphasized the season or because they don’t see much point in Lenten disciplines.

As Americans, our religious focus tends to be on the two big holidays: Christmas and Easter. Pew Research has been tracking Americans’ Google searches for religious terms since 2004 and, every year, searches for the word “church” peak in the week before these two holidays. These are the two biggest attendance draws each year, coining the term “Chreaster” for these occasionally observant Christians.

Worldwide, Pew has found that less than half of the population in South American countries—still heavily Catholic to this day—say they participate in any form of Lenten fasting. Pew found that Lenten fasting and church attendance is a bit more common in certain areas of Eastern Europe and particularly in Greece, where the Orthodox Fast of Great Lent is a deeply rooted part of the culture. But, overall, secularization is widespread.

In Italy, Elisa Di Benedetto, managing director of the International Association of Religion Journalists, says, “If you’re looking for cultural aspects of the season here in Italy, then there is the carnival, which ends when Lent begins.” In fact, there is a nearly 1,000-year tradition of elaborate celebrations and costumes in the carnival of Venice, a global tourist attraction. “But if you’re looking for religious aspects of Lent? I’m not sure people feel that strongly about these things nowadays. Give something up for Lent? I don’t know of too many people who are doing that.”

In North Africa, her IARJ co-director Larbi Megari points out that Christian minorities don’t tend to publicize their religious practices. “There’s no public presence of these Christian practices in Algeria. These are minorities and they don’t want to make big public displays with their religious observances. It may be a more visible practice in a country like Egypt with the Coptic church.” Observant Coptic families still follow the strict Eastern Orthodox Fast of Great Lent, which extends for more than 40 days and excludes meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, wine, and oil from the diet.

In major studies of global religious trends, Americans as a whole tend to rank among the world’s most religiously observant people. But when it comes to Lent? American observance of Lent is not universal across Christian denominations and, even among Catholics, Lenten practices have become fairly casual, studies show.

“That’s why, on our radio network, we don’t emphasize the season of Lent, because we are broadcasting to a very diverse Christian audience out there and we know that many Protestant denominations traditionally don’t do much with Lent,” says Peter Wallace in our interview. “No question, there are many men and women out there who’ve either never experienced Lent, or who have fallen away from that. That’s why this is such a great opportunity to reach out with this new book and offer people a chance to discover—or to re-discover—the traditions of Lent.”

‘Taking something on’ for Lent

“You’ve reported on this in the past,” Peter says, referring to past articles in ReadTheSpirit. “Some of the mysterious spiritual practices that the church observed for centuries—like the spiritual disciplines of Lent—are attracting interest in many individual congregations and among young people seeking a depth to their lives that they are not experiencing in this culture. For example, we don’t think of Baptist churches having an Ash Wednesday service and yet our Day 1 headquarters is located on the campus of a big Baptist church here in Atlanta and they do have Ash Wednesday services and they will be observing Lent.

“I think this is growing, if you look in the right places. I keep hearing from people who tell me they want more depth as they approach this season. They’re familiar with this cultural idea of ‘giving something up for Lent,’ like chocolate or wine or something like that. But that can become pretty silly if there’s no real spiritual connection to that.

“I’m hearing more about people deciding to take something on during Lent. They might try a new spiritual practice. If you’re not used to picking up the Bible for 15 minutes each day, then try that during Lent. Or, if you don’t usually pray during your day, take on some kind of daily prayer. Or you might volunteer at a community food bank.”

The global trend may be toward secularization in many regions, but certain populations are drawn toward some of the spiritual disciplines, Peter argues. “Some of the mysterious, powerful, spiritual practices that the churches observed for centuries are being rediscovered particularly by young adults who are seeking a depth to their lives that they are not experiencing in today’s culture.”

That idea matches data compiled by book publishers, in recent years, showing a rejection of digital reading in favor of ink-on-paper reading,  a trend often described as “screen weariness.” With the dawn of smartphones and Kindles in 2007, publishers watched digital book sales skyrocket for several years, threatening to wipe out ink-on-paper publishing if the trend continued. Then, to the shock of many publishers, e-book sales fell and paper-book sales rose. This move from digital to paper reading is true among all ages, younger adults in particular. (Care to read more about this surprising trend? Check out this column, headlined “Are ink-on-paper books dead?” at our new Front Edge Publishing website.)

“I see that, too,” Peter says. “Our lives have become so technology and social-media driven with information coming at us around the clock. Alerts keep coming all the time on our phones and other electronic devices. We get to a point where we simply want some place that’s quiet so we can reclaim a sense of meaning and just stop everything else to experience the mystery, the wonder of faith.”

That also lines up with recent Pew research. In a 2016 report, Pew summarized the trend this way: “There has been an increase of 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 in the share who say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly (from 38% to 45%). And there has been a similar rise in the share of religious ‘Nones’ who say the same (from 39% to 47%).” In other words, even among Americans who have rejected any religious affiliation (the “Nones”), men and women are moving in significant numbers toward welcoming what amounts to spiritual reflection.

Peter Wallace points us in 4 directions

The other important thing you should know about Peter’s new book is his brilliant design of four directions for spiritual action, based on the 52 short meditations in this book. (Yes, Lent is traditionally “40 days,” but Peter extends his readings beyond Easter.) Peter describes these 4 directions as:

GET REAL—Pointed questions to help you figure out what Jesus’s words have to do with you and your life.

DIG IN—Go deeper into the meditation’s Scripture reading, pointing out some things you may have missed or might want to study further.

READ ON—This takes you to some other parts of Scripture to add to your understanding of what Jesus says or to show you what happens when you really believe what he’s saying.

TAKE OFF—A springboard to prayer in light of what you’ve read and thought about, with some ideas on what your next steps might be.

Every one of the 52 readings concludes with questions and other prompts leading readers in these four directions.

“I did this because I know people are drawn into this kind of experience in many different ways,” Peter says. “You can try all four of these, as an individual, or you could choose one daily path that really appeals to you. Another great way to experience this book is to share it with somebody and do this together. Compare notes as you go. Most churches have small groups, already. If not, form a small group yourself. Someone in your small group may be more drawn to one direction than another. That’s fine. You’ve got four options here.

“Yes, this takes some effort, but I can tell you—it will be well worth it. That’s why so many Christians have marked this season for so many years. It’s a terrific opportunity to meet Jesus again—just waiting for us.”

Care to read more?

For more than a decade, we’ve also been publishing books that make our world a better place. You can always check out our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore with links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers—and please take a look at our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore.

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Michael Emerson on our racial divides, cocooning and humility research

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

EDITOR’S NOTE—Our colleague David Briggs has published a fascinating interview with sociologist and educator Michael Emerson at the Ahead of the Trend website. While most of our readers are well aware of America’s racial disparities, this new interview about the crisis points us in directions that could lead toward reconciliation—particularly as Briggs and Emerson discuss humility research.

In our 11 years as an online magazine, we have occasionally cited and recommended Emerson’s work, especially his 2008 Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. One of Emerson’s books that we particularly recommend for a serious examination of racial divides in American religion is Blacks and Whites in Christian America (2012).

In the conversation between Briggs and Emerson, here are a couple of the gems you will find:

Constructive conversation that could break down barriers is difficult, these days, because people tend to isolate themselves with like-minded friends, Emerson says. “Not only are we afraid to be honest, when there is honesty, people often aren’t trained to be able to handle that. … Their lives have been so cocooned they are able to surround themselves with people like them, that think like them. They don’t know how to handle people that don’t. They don’t know how to handle conflict and they don’t know how to have discussions where people disagree.”

The concept of humility is foreign to many Americans, Emerson says. Instead, we tend to be focused on our “rights,” not on a compassionate understanding of other people. Emerson says: “We’re really reduced to a rights culture. I know how to try to declare my rights. I don’t know how to do anything else, really. … In a rights culture, I learn how to speak up for myself, I learn how to recognize when I or my group is experiencing injustice, but I don’t learn a lot to think about other groups and what they might be encountering.”

Visit Ahead of the Trend to read the entire interview between David Briggs and Michael Emerson.

 

 

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Fran McKendrie and Friends Plan for Awakening Soul 2018

AwakeningSoul 2018 from We Media on Vimeo.

PLAN AHEAD FOR NOV. 2018 IN ASHVILLE

ReadTheSpirit magazine has been covering the ongoing work of musician, retreat leader and peace activist Fran McKendree over the past decade. Reaching back into our archives to remind you of his inspiring talents, here are a two of our earlier stories:

In 2010, we visited with Fran in his home for our American Journey series. That 2010 headline was: Fran McKendree Sings ‘Storm Is Passing Over.’ A year later, he sent us a video of another song, ‘Times Like These.’

Currently, Fran is helping to organize the Awakening Soul 2018 retreat in November in Ashville, North Carolina. Check it out. You might want to attend.

Want to explore further?

Check out …

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Dr. Karlene Stange invites us to explore ‘The Spiritual Nature of Animals’

Dr. Karlene Stange in the realm she loves. (Author photo used with permission)

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“I set out to understand the spiritual nature of animals and, in so doing, I discovered my own.”
Dr. Karlene Stange in The Spiritual Nature of Animals

By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

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

Imagine if James Herriot, the man behind All Creatures Great and Small, and Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, wrote a book together. The result would be something like The Spiritual Nature of Animals: A Country Vet Explores the Wisdom, Compassion, and Souls of Animals.

Dr. Karlene Stange writes like she’s channeling both methods of exploring the world: the adventures of a rural veterinarian paralleling the reflections of a scholar of religious traditions. Here is a passage from early in her book to give you a feel for the adventure that lies ahead if you choose to read her book:

Creatures great and small dragged me down a rabbit hole and through sacred tunnels into a world of dragons, shamans, gurus, lamas, monks, nuns, demons, priests, rabbis, preachers, scientists, clairvoyants, channels, mystics, animal communicators, and spiritual teachers. Those adepts schooled me and gave me refuge from the dramas and trauma overburdening me. They introduced me to the ‘anima’—what Jungian psychology refers to as the animating principal present in all living things.

Anima is the Latin root of the word animal. It means soul, breath, and life. Veterinarians share a personal relationship with the anima; we watch it drain from a body only to meet it again as a newborn foal or pup. Yet veterinary education rarely mentions it. We learn detailed information about bones, blood, and the other physical components, but little is said of the nonphysical aspect—the animas of animals. I now believe it is the most important part.

Karlene has her own web address for related information that begins with her preferred term animas: www.AnimasAnimals.com There you will find information about her veterinary practice as well as some some unusual recipes for dog treats, including a Fish Quiche for Dogs that frankly looks like humans might find it delicious, and even an Essential Oils Fly Repellent.

Clearly, Stange loves to share what she is learning from people around the world. Among her other passions are speaking and teaching about what she has learned to groups of people who care for animals, particularly other vets.

Starting with the Science

Of course, Karlene addresses the basic questions we all have: Are animals even “conscious” in a way that makes them more than engines of instinct and natural desires? Is there even a basis for considering animal spirituality? Her book offers lots of persuasive findings from pure scientific inquiry about the complex psychological and social lives of animals.

Among the scientists she cites in her book is the biologist Bernd Heinrich, a specialist in studying birds. Summarizing his contribution briefly for her readers, she writes: “Heinrich defines consciousness as ‘the mental visualization of alternative choices that then guides judgment of new situations at the moment.'”

She concludes, along with Heinrich: “One must always bear in mind that there is no way for one being to truly know what is going on in the mind of another. Even though we may not recognize consciousness when we see it, denying its presence seems premature.” Then she quotes Heinrich, “Dismissing the mind because one cannot personally prove it with precision by a simple test or device is like the denial of the role of inheritance before genes were elucidated.”

She also cites the prolific work of Marc Bekoff, who has been featured in several ReadTheSpirit magazine interviews over the past decade. Here is one example from 2014, when Marc talked with us about his book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.

In our interview, Karlene said, “We’ve been so stubborn about our human egos being in charge and not looking at some things that are just obvious. Of course, animals feel emotion. Darwin wrote about this more than 150 years ago. It’s time to let go of our vain perception that we’re so superior as humans and start looking at the point, as Marc points out, that animals have emotions and they perhaps have morals.”

As a trained scientist herself, Karlene echoes what Marc and many other pioneers in this field have been arguing—despite sometimes strident opposition from others in academia. “At first, writing, talking and teaching about these ideas was the subject of tremendous ridicule,” Karlene said. “People were in danger of being drummed out of their fields. For example, when Irene Pepperberg began her work she had trouble finding any funding. Finally, she showed what Alex the Parrot was capable of doing, even though his brain was the size of a walnut. Now, Alex is a poster child of animal cognition.

“These pioneers open doors for others. Now, we know Prairie Dogs have a language. We know bees can count. I recently emailed Marc and, in the exchange, I asked him, ‘Why can’t we all just admit these things and look at what’s possible and study it?’

“Marc said: ‘Because, then we have to look at how we treat animals, as well as other humans. It’s the same thing with racism and sexism. We feel we can treat others poorly only if we convince ourselves that they are somehow not worthy of us.'”

From Science to Spirit

What Karlene is bringing to the public conversation is a very compelling storybook for general readers—part memoir of her adventures as a country vet, part explorations of spiritual realms in her search for new insights. Her narrative is organized through these personal stories, which welcome us to Karlene’s world and allow her to guide us deeper. We encounter researchers as well as stories from the world’s great religious traditions.

Bottom line: Because of the storytelling style, it’s fun to read. In fact, you’re likely to enjoy discussing this book in your small group. In early 2018, watch for a discussion guide that Karlene plans to develop to help small-group leaders pose inviting questions to spark conversation.

The book opens with Karlene receiving an urgent call about a dying horse. On the day she received that call, Karlene tells us, she was having a particularly difficult day, so this emergency appeal was the last thing she wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, the old rancher was insistent: “Honey, if you don’t come, she’s going to die. She fell in the irrigation ditch this morning, and now she’s too weak to stand.”

In fact, this was a 3-day-old foal and the little horse could be saved, Karlene began to suspect, if only the foal could be treatment immediately.

Working out of her mobile vet-clinic-in-a-truck at that point, Karlene set aside her own problems that day and responded: “I’ll come right now.”

What happened next? Well, read the book. If this sounds like an episode of the still-very-popular TV series about James Herriot’s work, then you’ve got the idea. (And, by the way, Karlene is pleased at the comparison. She said in our interview, “Oh, I love the Herriot stories! And, I watched the TV series as a child. One of my highlights years later as a student was that I got to hear a talk by Brian Sinclair, who was the role model for the character Tristan Farnon.”)

Here at ReadTheSpirit, we wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see a TV series about Karlene’s work—and her larger exploration of cosmic connections. That’s what distinguishes this book from the countless other volumes and TV series about vets, which cascaded like a waterfall into popular media after the Herriot books became a global sensation in the 1970s.

In Karlene’s opening story about the injured foal, she introduces the subject of animal emotion. But her step into spiritual spheres really comes in the book’s second story about a call from Margaret, a dog owner who describes herself as a “Catholic Buddhist.” Margaret and her beloved canine companion are facing some agonizing end-of-life choices, made all the more complex by Margaret’s interwoven religious traditions.

In the book, Karlene writes, “It took several days to grasp the meaning of the relationship Margaret had with her dog, the religious implications of the final days, and how to best help them both.” What happened next? Well, read the book. At this point, you get the idea. Karlene weaves stories with spiritual insights to craft very compelling prose.

Opening up the Spiritual Realms

Over more than a decade of weekly publishing here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, we have often posted Cover Stories about the growing interest in the spiritual lives of animals. In fact, waaay back in 2007, one of our earliest Cover Stories was a two-part interview with Tony Campolo headlined: A Conversation with Tony Campolo … The Spiritual Lives of Animals. From his perspective as an Evangelical with a capital “E,” Campolo was arguing:

All of this is part of the fact that as we move into a postmodern era, there is a rediscovery of dimensions of spirituality that got lost in the modern era. In the modern era, anything that could not be reduced to empirical data and logic was discounted. Now, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in a new place. It’s a place wherein there is a sense that there is more to reality than what can be ascertained by empiricism. We need to tap into that which transcends. We are not just into physics anymore. We’re into metaphysics in the postmodern era. … John Wesley understood that we have a connectedness with animals. C.S. Lewis was also aware of this. Lewis wondered how certain people could be in heaven—truly in heaven—unless the animals they loved and who loved them were there in heaven with them. Read Lewis. I think he argues this point more convincingly than I do.

So, for our readers who are still scratching their heads and wondering if Karlene Stange’s book could fit into a small-group reading schedule in your congregation—and there are millions of those small groups in churches nationwide—we are saying: Yes, indeed, it could. What’s more? There are many voices in contemporary Christianity saying the same thing.

In her pages, Karlene opens up all kinds of connections, beyond the Christian links Campolo and others lift up. The second major section of her book invites us to travel around the world with her for vivid examples of creation stories. She begins in the American Southwest with the Hopi, then takes us to Australia for an Aborigine understanding of the world’s origins, from there to the ancient Hebrew creation stories—then on to African traditions. In other words: This is where the James Herriot persona moves over into the passenger seat and the Joseph Campbell voice drives for a while—as these two intriguing viewpoints bounce back and forth, becoming dual tour guides helping us to circle our planet.

“I hope readers come away from this book with a new appreciation for the amazing cycles of life all around us,” Karlene said in our interview. “I hope they see our connections with those greater cycles in new ways. I want people to have a different perspectives on the animals around us so they might relate to them in a fuller way. If we open ourselves up to these ideas, then it’s really a chance to discover something amazing about the lives around us.”

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Kelley Nickondeha in ‘Adopted’ proclaims: ‘We can choose to be family!’

Kelley and her husband Claude with the community in Burundi. Click this image to visit Kelley’s site and learn more about her work.

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“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family.”
Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

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

By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

Ever since Harper Lee wrote that line more than half a century ago, her words have circled the globe like holy writ. In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has tried to soften the more troubling implications by adding, “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” Yet, to this day, the adage often fuels isolation, fosters lingering pain, taps into ancient tribalism and can fuel tragic competition.

That’s why Kelley Nikondeha’s message is so radical—and timely in today’s splintering world. In her new book, Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured WorldKelley proclaims:

We can choose our families!

“The idea is so simple,” Kelley said in an interview. “We can choose to be family. Yes, it is radical to say those words: We can choose to be family. And, it is true. We can choose to show up every day and become family. For us, we see this most visibly in our development work in Burundi. It is so clear to us in the unity we share in the big work of this small community, filled with hope as we see the forward motion of this community. We do not live solitary lives. It is in fully experiencing the communal aspects of life together that we begin to experience the family God is calling us all to become.”

Chances are that the ReadTheSpirit community is hearing about Kelley, Claude and their work in Burundi for the first time. So, let’s pause here to share some helpful links:

  • Get her bookHere is the Amazon link.
  • Visit Kelley’s home page: Here is her website and, yes, that is a silhouette of Jerusalem’s skyline in the center of her front page along with her personal affirmation: A Practical Theologian Hungry for the New City. And, yes, she is talking about the vision of one day living in a re-united kingdom of God—a vision shared by all of the Abrahamic faiths in various forms and terms. In  her book, she writes specifically about the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or “repairing the world,” as well as Christian and Muslim visions of a united world.
  • Enjoy her columns: About once a month, Kelley posts a new column. Her January 2018 reflection was written during a recent trip to Burundi. Kelley also contributes to She Loves Magazine and this particular January column contains a link that will carry you to that website, as well.
  • Click on this photo to read Kelley’s story about working with a Batwa community in Burundi.

    Discover Communities of Hope: The Batwa community in Burundi, which Kelley and Claude Nikondeha helped to organize over the past decade, tells its story across a number of websites and social media pages, including Facebook. Perhaps the best summary of the Nikondehas’ efforts is their column on the Communities of Hope website. (You’ll find that column by clicking on this link, then clicking on the photo of Kelley and Claude at the top of that page.) Kelley begins that column with these words: “If you wanted to create a compelling community development project with the best chance of success, I don’t imagine this one would have met any of the classic criteria.”

An Unlikely Visionary

That same line might also describe Kelley’s unlikely origins. As she explains in the opening pages of her book, she was given up by her mother as an infant, cared for by an adoption agency in Los Angeles and soon was claimed by a woman unable to have children.

As she tells us in the course of the book, her story has biblical parallels and led her into a lifetime of ever-widening circles of awareness about God’s creativity in our world. She now welcomes and encourages visionary leaps. For example, she was raised Catholic and considers this her “mother Church,” even though her master of divinity was earned at Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical school. On her website, she tells visitors: “I’m a woman continually recalibrated by the liberation stories of Miriam and Moses, the intoxicating poetry of Isaiah and the provocative parables of Jesus.”

That line also is a pretty good description of the biblical reflections woven into her new book-length memoir, Adopted. While it’s natural for a Christian theologian to write and teach about Jesus, the strong focus on Hebrew scriptures in Kelley’s work is striking. In our interview, she said, “I am deeply influenced by Isaiah. If I had to carry with me just one book of the Bible to nourish my imagination, it would be the poetry of Isaiah and the vision of the new city.

“That’s such a compelling vision in our world today,” she continued. “We envision, and we work toward, a city that thinks differently about how to include people, a city that cares for the health of all the people, an economy that is calibrated to make every family strong. That’s the vision that inspires me as a person of faith and certainly it guides our aspirations as development partners with the people in Burundi. Those are visions to work toward every day. Each morning, I ask myself: How are we moving one step closer to that vision? How can we help to construct this new community based on God’s justice?”

A Child Shall Lead

What makes Adopted so compelling is that Kelley grounds her soaring spiritual reflections in a series of real-life stories about her own childhood and the childhood of her two children, adopted from Burundi. One of her first stories involves a moment all adoptive parents experience, when their children begin to think about their birth parents and often construct heart-felt images of who these parents might be.

One morning, Kelley finds her little son weeping, emotionally overwhelmed with an image of his birth mother in Africa needing food to survive. When Kelley comes to comfort him, he tells her, “I love you, but I have to go to her.”

This is impossible because the Nikondehas have no way of reaching the parents of either of their children. They adopted their son because he was living in a group home with no record of his parents. They adopted their daughter after both of her parents died of AIDS. (The story of that adoption and the anxiety over whether the little girl also had AIDS is one of the most compelling sections of the book.)

All of these experiences with her own children move Kelley to rethink her own adoption many years ago and even to change her own perspective on adoption. As a very young woman, she thought she was an expert on the subject, yet her longer life’s story tugs at those early assumptions into an ever-expanding network of awareness.

In her book, she writes: “This is how adoption works—like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery. All that divides us as nations, ethnicities, and religious traditions is like a vapor quickly extinguished in light of our adoption into God’s family.”

As she leads us in these pages through her own meditations on classic Bible stories, she invites us into this greater mystery of adoption—hopefully with new enlightenment awaiting us as we read. In fact, the Christian New Testament argues passionately, through the letters of Paul, that we all are adopted by God, Kelley writes.

“The stories of scripture lead us to understand our belonging to God’s family through adoption, full heirs to our Father’s world. As heirs, we participate in extending God’s Kingdom of peace. As family, we recognize others as siblings who ought to be treated as such. As adopted ones, we extend that magnanimous belonging to others.”

She continues, “True belonging has never been limited to physical means or markers. Through each new generation, God has shown us that family membership is inclusive, generous and diverse. Each new story stretches our imagination and challenges our capacity to embrace others as family. Adoption points to an ever-extending family that crosses boundaries of all sorts, excluding no one.”

How We Know This Works

One of the most inspiring narrative threads in Kelley’s book are the experiences she shares from her work with her husband in helping to establish a village for the typically shunned Batwa minority. In the book, she explains: “Burundi is a country comprised of three tribes, the majority Hutu, the traditionally significant Tutsi, and the maligned Batwa. Small in stature, in number, and in local esteem, the Batwa live undocumented on the edges of Burundian society. The first time Claude met someone from this tribe was in 2004.”

That was such a startling experience that it transformed Claude’s life! He thought of himself as a proud Burundian, yet he had never even met a member of the Batwa tribe until well into his adulthood. This led to a strong commitment by both of the Nikondehas to repair this historic breach in cultures. It also led to confusion in their own family.

Kelley put it this way in the interview, “My husband’s own family was confused by his interest in these people. If he was going to help someone, why not help their clan? Why not help his own family? Why help this other clan? How could he think of the Batwa as family?”

In the book, she writes: “Here is what Claude knows deeper than words: All Burundians are his relatives. He stands in soldarity with these families, be they Batwa, Hutu or Tutsi. He pours out his life for them because they are irrevocably his own. Once he told me that his very humanity depended on how he loved these families. As an adopted one of God, he knows, like Jesus, like Paul, there is no basis for division along clan or ethnic lines.”

Voices Converging

In 2018, Kelley is not alone in making this radical appeal.

In a moving foreword to Kelley’s book, evangelical activist Shane Claiborne writes, in part:

“Mother Teresa once said that the circle we draw around family is too small. We put limits on love. Because our vision isn’t as big as God’s, we can end up spiritually short-sighted. We reduce family to biology or nationality or ethnicity. We put up picket fences and build walls along our borders. We use the language of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and we draw lines in the sand. Kelley Nikondeha is the perfect person to set us free from our myopia and tunnel vision. She helps open our eyes to the boundless love of God. This book is about belonging. It is about the limitless hospitality of God, which has the power to transform us into people who extend the same hospitality to others.”

But, this is far more than speculative theology. This is a movement in popular culture and in science as well.

One of the mostly highly praised—and most popular—prime time TV series, This Is Us, explores issues related to adoption in almost every episode. The series makes little reference to religion. And that dramatic series’ popularity is despite the widespread rise of nationalist and racist voices in American culture over the past year.

One of the hottest Christmas gifts in recent years is DNA testing. So many millions have purchased the service that companies doing the analysis experience long delays. And, while genealogy may seem to be the ultimate obsession of a family-focused, isolationist movement away from the global community—the fact is that these DNA reports reveal vast global connections between communities. A typical DNA report from the popular Ancestry.com also reveals links to a long list of far-flung, distant relatives. The overall movement is toward global connection, not away from it.

One of the most eloquent voices calling for a merger of faith and family on a vast global scale is a scientific secularist: James Gustave Speth. For many years, Speth has been on the cutting edge of environmental issues around the world. In his book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, Speth explores evolutionary instincts that might help humans survive the environmental catastrophes yet to come. He explains that adaptation and self preservation makes sense in evolutionary theory for individuals, families and communities. But that instinct breaks down on a worldwide scale. Is there any force, any compelling vision, that might motivate all of humanity to gather in unified action?

Speth answers that question, toward the end of the book, by exploring several possible solutions, including:

“Another way forward to a new consciousness should lie in the world’s religions. … The potential is enormous. About 85 percent of the world’s people belong to one of the ten thousand or so religions, and about two-thirds of the global population is Christian, Muslim or Hindu. Religions played key roles in ending slavery, in the civil rights movement, and in overcoming apartheid in South Africa, and they are now turning their attention with increasing strength to the environment.”

‘The Carry-Away Piece’

Toward the end of our interview, Kelley repeated again: “We can choose to be family.”

She paused, then said, “That’s the carry-away piece from this book. Remember: We can choose to be family. And as we decide to make that choice, we can express it in many different ways. Actual adoption of a child is one very powerful way, but this choice to be family can take so many forms! It can create new communities. It can transform broken communities.

“And, it’s a truth right there in our shared traditions—Christians, Muslims, Jews. That’s the power of belonging. When we use the word family in this way, we are calling on a deep fidelity to the truth that in the long term, we belong to one another.”

She closes her book with a similar affirmation, writing:

“War, death and disease rend the world. Injustice tears at the fabric of neighborhoods, making relinquishment the best but most heart-wrenching choice under bad circumstances and leaving behind orphans, families at risk, people side-lined with no support system or sign of hope. Adoption is one way we dare to stitch the world back together. It offers a needle and thread to begin the mending. We cannot mend all the wounds, gather all the fragments scattered about war zones and orphanages and underserved neighborhoods—but we can do what we can with each stitch.”

Care to read more?

For more than a decade, ReadTheSpirit has encouraged the publication of books that help to stitch the world back together again. In addition to ordering a copy of Kelley’s book, please look over the books we are sending into the world.

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