Service of the Longest Night and the challenge of ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences

Photo by Rémy Sanchez via Wikimedia Commons.


Contributing Columnist

On Saturday, December 21, my congregation will offer a Service of the Longest Night, sometimes called Blue Christmas in other traditions.

This is “one of the greatest acts of pastoral care in the Advent season,” according to Ministry Matters, and is focused on the pain and hurt that many people feel during the holiday season. Growing in popularity across the country, and sometimes called “Blue Christmas” services, these gatherings are times to acknowledge grief, loss and ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences.

ACEs include emotional, physical and sexual abuse, as well as emotional and physical neglect. “ACEs are common, cumulative, and are strongly associated with most of the leading causes of death in the U.S.,” says Rebecca Bryan, DNP, who spoke at a Presbyterian clergy conference I attended in October that focused on spiritual, emotional, financial and vocational health. She points out that ACEs are also associated with “health risk behaviors like smoking, disordered eating and substance abuse.”

Writing in Psychology Today, Teresa Gil says that ACEs go beyond abuse and neglect to include mothers treated violently, mental illness, divorce or separation, substance abuse, and an incarcerated family member.

Gil reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study comprising 17,377 middle-class adults with an average age of 57. The study examined the impact of ACEs on physical health and social functioning. In addition, they examined the relationship between ACEs and adult risk-taking behaviors.

What did they find? Adverse childhood experiences are common. One in six of the participants had four or more ACEs, and two-thirds had at least two or more ACEs. Yes, that’s right, two-thirds of the adults surveyed had at least two adverse childhood experiences.

The study also found that the problem of ACEs lasts a lifetime. High numbers of adverse childhood experiences in the first eighteen years of life are linked to poor physical health, mental health, and social functioning.

Adults with numerous ACEs are significantly more likely to behave in ways that place their health at risk. Such risk-taking behavior includes alcohol and drug abuse, cigarette smoking, compulsive eating and having multiple sex partners.

How Do We Hear These Stories?

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In my novel City of Peace, pastor Harley Camden discovers that his friend Dirk Carter has struggled with the problem of ACEs.

Dirk and Harley were sitting on the third-floor porch of Harley’s house, drinking coffee and looking down on Mill Street. A slight breeze rustled the dark-green leaves of the trees along the street, and the pedestrians doing Saturday morning shopping moved from one patch of shade to another as they progressed from store to store in the bright sunshine.

“Nice view you’ve got from up here,” Dirk said as he took a bite of a cinnamon roll.

As they gazed westward, they saw a woman walking down the street, suspending a child by one arm and spanking her repeatedly. The little girl was shrieking and struggling to break free. “I hate to see a mother do that,” Harley said.

“You’re telling me,” Dirk responded. For a second it looked as though Dirk was going to reprimand the woman over the porch railing, but she stopped berating the child and the little girl began to trudge along, sobbing instead of screaming.

“Reminds me of my own mother,” sighed Dirk, settling back in his chair. “She had a fiery temper and would beat me for minor infractions. One time, when I was probably five or six, I was trying to help her clear the table. I knocked a vase off the table and it shattered on the floor. She slapped me hard and knocked me to the ground.”

“That’s terrible,” said Harley. “That would be considered child abuse today.”

“Well, it was a different time. Made me feel like I had to walk on egg shells all the time. I never knew what would set her off. She really scared me.”

“Where was your dad in all this?”

“He was around, but never intervened. Maybe he was afraid of her temper as well.”

“I bet that made you mad at your father.”

“I’ve never really thought about it,” admitted Dirk. “Mad? I don’t know. Disappointed, yes. He could have stepped in, but he didn’t. I always got the feeling that he expected me to take care of myself.”

“So, if you needed his help, you were showing weakness?”

“Right. He expected me to be a man, and I didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“I guess that makes sense at a certain age,” said Harley. “But not when you are five or six. I think he should have protected you.”

“I guess. But what’s the point of being resentful? I can’t change the past. He’s dead, and has been dead for a long time.”

Harley thought about how the dead continued to grab hold of the living and mess with them, no matter how long they had been in the grave.

What Can We Do When We Hear Such Stories?

I was thinking about Dirk and Harley while learning about ACEs at my Presbyterian conference. And while walking in the woods I found a rugged stone altar. The rough stones of the altar reminded me of the pain of life and the ACEs that continue to shape so many lives. On top of the altar is a stone with the word “hope,” which suggests that healing is always possible.

According to Rebecca Bryan, the treatment of trauma requires a shift from the question “What’s wrong with you?” to the question “What happened to you?”

In her book Light Shines in the Darkness, Lucille Sider speaks honestly about what happened to her over the course of her life. She recounts her sexual abuse as a child and teen, her divorces, and her struggles with mental illness. Through the book she helps the reader to see these challenges with exceptional clarity, and her faith and resilience provide a guiding light to those in similar situations. At one point in the book she learns that the biblical word “blessed” can also mean “mature” or “ripe.”

Answering the question “What happened to you?” is the first step in healing from trauma and moving from horror to hope. “Empowering patients to see the connections of their whole lives may well enable deep healing,” says Bryan. “I believe Jesus came in a body for a reason—to teach us to listen to our bodies. The way back — the way to healing, to breaking through the hard, protective crust we’ve formed so we can rediscover who God created us to be—is by listening to our bodies.”

When individuals are encouraged to tell their stories and listen to their bodies, connections are made between ACEs and health risk behaviors. Such understandings can set the stage for healing, and lead to a “ripeness” that might not be achieved any other way.

My church will offer a Service of the Longest Night again this year with the hope that light will begin to shine in the lives of those who are struggling, in and around our congregation.



You’ll enjoy our March cover story about Henry and his new novel.

You’ll also want to learn about two related resources we publish:


BY LUCILLE SIDER—Clinical psychologist and clergywoman Lucille F. Sider adds her voice to the chorus of women in the #WhyIDidntReport and #MeToo movements with her new book, Light Shines in the Darkness: My Healing Journey through Sexual Abuse and Depression.

This is Lucille’s story of resilience and hope as a survivor of sexual abuse. She explains the challenges of finding her way out of a fear-based spirituality into one that is full of grace, hope and forgiveness. The unique richness of her book is that she wrote it to spark healing discussion, which is why she also has included a complete study guide that’s perfect for use in small groups.


BY ROGER MURCHISON—Here’s a valuable resource for families drawn to a Darkest Night or Blue Christmas service: Guide for Grief: Help in surviving the stages of grief and bereavement after a loss, by the noted Christian grief counselor Roger Murchison. He wrote this book, drawing on his many years of experience, because so many people are terrified of admitting that we are aging, let alone dying. Many families get stuck in patterns of grief and suffer as friends move on with life.

From his years of pastoral experience and study, he shares recommendations from both scripture and the latest research into loss and bereavement. This guide’s perspective is Christian, but all families will benefit from these well-tested principles. Each chapter ends with an inspiring prayer that readers can use in the journey we all will take through grief to wholeness.



HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

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Nine Holiday Gifts Guaranteed to Boost Your Spirits

Help Us Spread the Spirit of Peace this Season

SPIRIT is the courage and determination that helps people to survive in difficult times and to keep their way of life and their beliefs.” That’s a dictionary definition of the term—and is just what most of us need as we approach the year-end holidays this year.

Remember: Hanukkah begins on December 22, Christmas on the 25th, Kwanzaa on December 26, then some people even give New Year’s gifts. Books are a great choice for the New Year, because studies show that January is becoming a very popular month for starting new books!

What better gift to give someone this holiday season, than the gift of SPIRIT. All of these books promote peace by helping to bridge the gaps that separate Americans these days. Here are some suggestions from some of our favorite authors.

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Click the cover to visit Amazon.

NOTE: With this article, we are providing the Amazon links because that’s the first choice for most customers, these days. However, all of our books are also available through Barnes & Noble, which is handy if you are part of the BN discount program—as well as many other online bookstores, including our own Front Edge store. We encourage you to order via whatever online retailer you prefer.

30 Days with Abraham Lincoln

At a time when Americans are more divided than ever, Abraham Lincoln still calls us back together. That’s why Lincoln remains the soul of America, appealing to everyone from the staunchest conservative Republican to progressive Democrats. That’s how a radio station in Maine built a loyal audience for a short weekly feature by Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer called Quiet Fire.

Now, you can join in this call to spiritually reunite our nation by becoming part of the first wave of readers of: 30 Days With Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire. This inspirational book collects 30 of Newcomer’s best radio stories in recent years along with links to listen to the original broadcasts.

Care to learn more? We also have launched a new resource page, packed with:

  • Free media you can download to spread the word, including a press release and a one-page flyer suitable to hang on a wall to encourage small-group discussion. There’s even a 1-minute YouTube video you can share.
  • Praise for this new book from men and women nationwide.
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Click the cover to visit Amazon.

Finding God in Unexpected Places: Wisdom for Everyone from the Jewish Tradition

WARNING! The stories in this book might change your life. Responses we’ve heard nationwide include surprise, good cheer, occasional laughter and lots of reflections about the many ways God calls us to be compassionate people. How’s that for a gift with impact?

Author, Rabbi Jack Riemer is a master storyteller and teacher—one of the most frequently quoted rabbis in the U.S. That’s because of the fascinating ways he brings the relevance of timeless Jewish wisdom in our modern world.

What do a professional baseball player, Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry box, a hurricane, a garbage dump and a blue blazer hanging in your closet have to do with each other? They’re all turning points in Riemer’s stories in Finding God in Unexpected Places that lead us toward universal questions we all confront at some point in life.

Reflecting on Riemer’s wisdom about life, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor writes that the rabbi “is obviously a person with much understanding of the human situation.”

The late Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said, “Jack Riemer’s words are songs of hope and faith. Listen to them, as I do.”

Short Stuff From A Tall Guy

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Do you have someone on your gift list who needs a boost of spirit for the new year? This book is the perfect gift.

Popular author and counselor Benjamin Pratt helps men and women rediscover hope and purpose in their lives through his writing, teaching and public appearances.

Short Stuff From A Tall Guy is a collection of dozens of columns that readers keep talking about as he travels and meets with groups of men and women. Pratt guides readers to fresh insights through compassion, humor, and honesty about the dilemmas, doubts and challenges that we all face every day.

All of his short, true-life stories lead readers toward the promise of home and renewed energy for trying to make the world a better place. He encourages readers to develop an empathetic heart.

And a special note: A number of the best stories in this book take readers through the seasons of the year—so you could order this book as a gift and specially highlight a story in the book for the season at hand.

In the Foreword to this book, Buddhist teacher Geri Larkin writes that she loves the book because it is “filled with compassion, service and respect for everyone. At a time when crime stories are the highest-ranked television shows and topping best-seller lists, here is a book that offers an entirely different experience.”

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Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas?

The book’s subtitle hints at the inspiration you’ll find in these pages: The Turnaround Story of One Lay Minister and Two Small, Rural Churches.

When author Margie Briggs was asked to provide pastoral leadership for two tiny rural congregations, the men and women who continued to love those churches had hit rock bottom. Tragedy and controversy had claimed two previous pastors. Regional church leaders were so desperate that they begged Margie, a lay person, to work with the broken-hearted people in order to get them through the holidays. They asked her: Can You Just Get Them Through until Christmas?

Instead, Margie’s creativity and compassion inspired these men and women to reach out in new ways and sustainably grow their two churches into vibrant communities.

More than half of the churches in America are small with attendance of less than 100. In fact, the median church in the U.S. has 75 regular participants in worship on Sunday mornings, according to the National Congregations Study. Many other books, today, describe ministries at vast megachurches. This is a book for the vast majority of Americans who say they care about their far smaller congregations and pray, every week, that they might be able to grow. Margie and her parishioners did just that. Their story will make you laugh; a few of these honest scenes may make you cry; but, ultimately, you’ll be inspired by what is possible when men and women work together.

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Friendship & Faith: Second Edition—The Wisdom of Women Creating Alliances for Peace

How about giving someone—or even yourself—the gift of friendship?

This book by the women of WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in MetroDetroit) serves up dozens of true stories about making friends, which may be the most important thing you can do to make the world a better place, and transform your own life in the process.

Making a new friend often is tricky, as you’ll discover in these dozens of real-life stories by women from a wide variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds. But, crossing lines of religion, race and culture is worth the effort, often forming some of life’s deepest friendships, these women have found.

In Friendship and Faith, you’ll discover how we really can change the world one friend at a time. So purchase a copy, give it to a women who you think could be a great friend, but maybe it’s not obvious to you both. She’ll get the hint.

Quaker singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer writes, “We are pressed daily by messages of fear, conflict and the idea that we are hopelessly divided by our differences. The stories contained in Friendship and Faith remind us of the richness and beauty contained in our diverse spiritual traditions, while affirming our shared human condition.”

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Light Shines In the Darkness: My Healing Journey Through Sexual Abuse and Depression

Sadly, every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted—which makes Lucille F. Sider’s book, Light Shines in the Darkness, a poignant gift for many men and women who share this heartbreaking experience.

Clinical psychologist and clergywoman Lucille F. Sider added her voice to the chorus of women in the #WhyIDidntReport and #MeToo movements by authoring this inspiring and helpful memoir. This is Lucille’s story of resilience and hope as a survivor of sexual abuse. She explains the challenges of finding her way out of a fear-based spirituality into one that is full of grace, hope and forgiveness.

The unique richness of her book is that she wrote it to spark healing discussions. As she describes her experiences in these pages, she also steps back and offers helpful analysis as both a psychologist and a clergywoman.

At the end of the book, she includes a complete study guide with questions for reflection for individuals, small groups and classes. Light Shines in the Darkness is a gift for the survivor or small group leader on your holiday gift list.

Bullying Is No Laughing Matter—an anthology of famous comics

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Millions of Americans follow the adventures of Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Luann, Dick Tracy, Gil Thorp and other top comic strip characters. We love to laugh at their adventures—and their misadventures. But, as the title of this powerful comic anthology declares: Bullying Is No Laughing Matter.

This full-color paperback represents a historic “team up” of America’s cartoon favorites. They’re united in encouraging kids to support each other when someone begins picking on them. National research shows that new forms of bullying follow kids wherever they go—inescapably plaguing them through social media on computers and smartphones.

Some of the comic artists contributing to this book have even added personal notes sharing their own experiences with bullies-or offering brief words of encouragement to kids. This book is a unique resource encouraging kids to build supportive relationships by starting with familiar characters they may have grown up with or will enjoy meeting in these pages.

Bullying Is No Laughing Matter unites 36 nationally distributed comic strips, many of them specifically addressing the issue of bullying for the first time in this publication. Readers will enjoy colorful visits from such regulars on the funny pages as Beetle Bailey, Blondie, Dennis the Menace, Dick Tracy, Funky Winkerbean, Gil Thorp, Luann, Stone Soup, Mary Worth, and many more.

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Every Living Thing

The book’s subtitle explains why this is such a perfect gift for the animal lovers on your shopping list: How Pope Francis, Evangelicals and Other Christian Leaders Are Inspiring All of Us to Care for Animals.

That loved one on your gift-giving list who lives with a furry friend will thank you—no matter what religious tradition that person finds most inspiring. And, of course, the book extends beyond our beloved dogs and cats to encourage concern for Every Living Thing.

The world’s 2 billion Christians are hearing loud and clear teachings about animals these days. Pope Francis’s encyclical on creation care is joined by a chorus of American evangelical leaders writing about care for animals. The Humane Society of the United States has collected the latest teachings from Christian leaders to inspire individuals and spark fresh discussion in congregations. This book includes the new “Evangelical Statement on Responsible Care for Animals” and teachings from a dozen denominations.

Why should we turn to religious leaders for compassionate advice about the animals we love? Because the origins of the animal-care movement came from our religious traditions, writes best-selling historian Eric Metaxas. “The roots of animal activism come from people of faith—there are biblical reasons for this.”

United America

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Finally, if daily headlines about angry political and cultural disputes are distressing you and your loved ones—here’s some amazing good news.

It’s in the subtitle to United America: The surprising truth about American values, American identity and the 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear.

University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is reporting a surprising truth about Americans: We are united by 10 Core Values. This truth is empowering because it enables us to rise above and see beyond political polarization, Washington gridlock, the imagery of Red/Blue states, and the rhetoric of culture wars and class warfare.

In these pages, Dr. Baker shows how Americans agree on a surprising number of principles, based on years of nonpartisan, scientifically balanced polling and research.

Second, this book is exceptional in its format, designed for individual reading and flexible use in classes, small groups and other settings where men and women enjoy civil discussion about the urgent issues of our day. Educators and business leaders will find this book very useful, partly because it is so easy to adapt for your setting.

The idea that we share certain basic values is valuable and empowering-it’s an insight that can bridge political chasms rather than deepen them.

There is so much more great reading …

Our staff and friends urge you to check out our entire bookstore.


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Peter Wallace: Rediscovering the Emotions of Jesus in ‘Heart and Soul’

EDITOR’S NOTE: To read the other half of this week’s Cover Story, you will want to see Duncan Newcomer’s reflection on Peter Wallace’s new book.

Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

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

In the endless debates over what the Bible requires about this or that issue—traditionalist evangelicals like to point toward chapter and verse where the words on the page appear to them to be clear, divine instructions.

Often, the best rebuke to such proof texting is to say: Whatever those words meant in the ancient world, Jesus came to teach us that the core of the gospel is loving God by acting compassionately toward those in need—and working against injustice and oppression.

Of course, it’s a perennial debate: Is Christianity defined only by words on a page—or by the personality of Jesus Christ, who most Christians believe is still alive and guiding people today. These two approaches to the faith can lead to very different priorities in the world. However, Christianity has never chosen one approach over the other. In fact, the faith was founded many centuries ago on a mysterious blend of Jesus as both human and divine. How can that be? For centuries, Christians have declared this to be the mystery of the Incarnation, which Christians soon will celebrate at Christmas.

The official formulation of the Incarnation describes Jesus as both “fully human and fully divine.”

That’s certainly an invitation to go beyond the words on a page of the Bible to explore the meaning of Jesus’ actions and feelings. And, that’s why author and broadcaster Peter Wallace’s slim new book, Heart and Soul: The Emotions of Jesus, is a perfect choice for small-group discussions in the New Year.

Jesus’s Emotions Open Doorways

Talking about Jesus’ emotions makes some Christians uncomfortable—and with good reason. Studying the realm of Jesus’ emotions opens the door to actually modeling his behavior in the world. It’s an idea that has empowered saints, ministers and huge institutions from schools to hospitals.

The key question: Is Jesus a divine character in a sacred book, reduced to words on a page—or is Jesus alive today and urging us to interact with the world as Jesus once did? That’s really the theme at the heart of Wallace’s unusual new book.

As author Duncan Newcomer writes, this week, in an accompanying column: Wallace’s new book holds a life-changing message: “It is the heart of God and the humanity of Jesus that indicates the potential of God within us. Of the teacher and the parent it is often said, ‘I don’t remember really anything that they said, but I never forgot how they made me feel.’ These are words that go beyond emotion to lifelong consequence, ill or well. And so it is that a book revealing the emotions of Jesus has it radical appeal.”

To put it bluntly: This is dangerous territory where our lives can be transformed by not simply proof-texting our way into Christian piety—but embracing the vast emotional range of Jesus in response to the needs of the world.

How Peter Wallace Rediscovered Robert Law

Peter Wallace in the Day1 studio.

Peter Wallace is internationally known for his many books—check out his Amazon author page—and for his national network of mainline, Protestant-Christian broadcasts, called Day1. Peter also is a long-time part of the ReadTheSpirit network of writers and editors who have become friends over the years. For example, many of our magazine cover stories are reposted on the Day1 website so Peter’s online audience and our audience become part of a larger online community.

Peter also has been featured in annual ReadTheSpirit cover stories for more than a decade. Just a few of his past visits to our magazine:

Peter’s 2013 book is called The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically. While researching material for that book, Peter first discovered Law’s almost-forgotten work on the same theme.

This week in our interview, I said to Peter: “So, your research on Passionate Jesus led you to search far and wide for other major works on this subject—and you found that precious little had been published on Jesus’s emotions, right?”

“There are a couple of very fine scholarly books. If readers want something more challenging, then I can recommend Matthew Elliott’s Faithful Feelings and Stephen Voorwinde’s Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels,” Peter said. “But, you’re right, the reason I was so intrigued by Law’s book is that there was very little about Jesus’ emotions written for general readers.”

“I think one reason so many Christian writers have avoided this subject is that it’s a powerfully transformative way to encounter Jesus,” I said. “This is dangerous territory. And, I think it’s startling to find such a prophetic work—published a century ago—was written by a Scottish Presbyterian.”

Dr. Robert Law

“Right! Just look at that stunning photo of him that I included in the book,” Peter said. “He looks so dour. We don’t know much about his life or why he wrote these particular sermons that form the book. I first ran across his book in an online archive and had to get a copy from the archive, because it’s been out of print for many years.

“So, other than reading what he wrote, we don’t have a lot of biographical material about Law to draw conclusions about his life. I’m just thankful that something came together in his life to produce this book that I think still vibrates with life and helps bring Jesus alive for us today. It’s as relevant as when he wrote it.”

What we do know is that Law was brought from Scotland to serve on the faculty of Knox College in Toronto, a theological school that still exists. At the same time, he preached at a local Presbyterian church. The sermons that form this book presumably were part of a series that was popular enough with his congregation that they were bound as a book.

“Ever since I finished my own book, The Passion of Jesus, I’ve always wanted to see Law’s book become available again,” Peter said. “Nancy Bryant and Church Publishing agreed to let me do this new edition, so I went through the original text and updated his style, here and there. With the editing, his message could have been written today.”

Updating the Book and Adapting for Small Groups

“How much did you change in your editing process?” I asked.

“Oh, I’d say the final text is maybe 95 percent Robert Law. I didn’t change much,” Peter said. “A century ago, for example, it was common to use masculine pronouns and I edited those references so they are more welcoming for today’s readers. Then, I also annotated the book with notes at the explaining some of his references. Back when Law was preaching, he simply assumed that everyone sitting in the pews understood his references to writers like Stevenson, Shaw, Wesley, Wordsworth and Browning. Today, people won’t pick up those references—so I added the notes at the end. Now, you can flip to the back of the book and learn more about the sources he used.

“Then the other addition I made was questions for readers to think about individually—or to use in a group discussion,” Peter said.

“What you’ve added really amounts to a discussion guide—bound right into the book,” I said. “So, it’s easy to use in a class or small group.”

Why Jesus’s Emotions Matter

This new book—like Peter’s earlier book about The Passionate Jesus—draws on deeply personal sources.

“I was raised in a very loving, warm Methodist pastor’s home—yet the image that I got of Jesus was not quite human,” Peter recalled in our interview. “That Jesus I saw in church when I was growing up seemed to float above the grit and grime of humanity. He didn’t seem to get angry—oh, except for that one time in the temple when he turned over some tables. As a result, I really couldn’t envision him as a loving person—or having a sense of humor.

“Movies didn’t help much. Most people have seen some of those old Hollywood movies about Jesus. He usually was played by these white actors who portrayed him as very unemotional. Then, as I began to do more reading myself, I realized that there were a lot more hints and glimpses of Jesus’s emotions than I was getting in church or I was seeing in popular culture.

“At the same time, I began to realize that exploring Jesus’ emotions really helped people to engage with him in an authentic way. Seeing a connection between our emotions and aspirations—and Jesus’ emotional life—we are encouraged and inspired in new ways. That’s why I wrote that first book, and now I’ve brought Law’s book back into print.”

In his introduction to the new book, Peter writes:

The insights you’ll find here are just as fresh and relevant to our lives today as they were when first written. Dr. Law reveals that understanding and appreciating how Jesus experienced and embodied his own emotions can transform how we live in this world for the good. We can become firebrands for social justice by putting our holy anger to good cause. We can be lovers on behalf of those left outside the community’s circle of care. Comforters of those who grieve. Encouragers of those in fear. Active sharers of the way of Jesus. God knows our world needs more such followers of the way of Jesus right now.


EDITOR’S NOTE: To read the other half of this week’s Cover Story, you will want to see Duncan Newcomer’s reflection on Peter Wallace’s new book.

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Duncan Newcomer: Reclaiming the humanity of Jesus with Peter Wallace

EDITOR’S NOTE: We say that a book is a community between two covers—inviting readers to join the author in a national conversation.

Occasionally that conversation also unfolds between two authors and two books, which is happening this autumn with Day1 radio producer Peter Wallace and Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer.

Peter wrote the foreword to Duncan’s new book, 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln: Quiet Fire. Since the book was published this autumn, Peter also has published his foreword to the Lincoln book on the website for his national radio network, Day 1.

When Peter’s new book Heart and Soul: The Emotions of Jesus was published, Duncan discovered a strong connection with his own interest in helping readers to rediscover the compassionate vision of Lincoln. So, Duncan wrote the following reflection as part of our ReadTheSpirit cover story, this week. (To read the other half of this week’s Cover Story, here is David Crumm’s interview with Peter Wallace about Heart and Soul.)

In reading this column by Duncan, we invite everyone to order these two books and join in this very timely national conversation. How do you do that? Start by reading. Then, when you care to respond, visit either the Day 1 website or the Lincoln resource page. You’ll discover lots of ways you can enter these compassionate communities.


Reclaiming the humanity of Jesus with Peter Wallace


Click the covers to visit the books’ Amazon pages.

“Jesus wept.”

This is not the catharsis of the spectacle of a Greek tragedy, nor even a therapeutic release. It is the yearning of the heart for something that seems not to come to be. For Mary it was her fear that Jesus was too late to help her brother Lazarus so that he might have lived. For Jesus it was that the whole City of Jerusalem might have come to a new kingdom of God.

“Jesus wept.” This is not nostalgia for what has been. It is Jesus’s excruciating yearning confronting his awareness of a defeated hope.

For our lives, it is not the teachings of Jesus, not even the idea of atonement and other dogma named after Christ. It is the heart of God and the humanity of Jesus that indicates the potential of God within us.

Of the teacher and the parent it is often said, “I don’t remember really anything that they said, but I never forgot how they made me feel.” These are words that go beyond emotion to lifelong consequence, ill or well.

And so it is that a book revealing the emotions of Jesus has it radical appeal. One thinks of the way feelings and thought have been united, not divided. Jesus did not say, “I think therefore I am.”

But there is also a noted moment in the young lives of the American 19th century heroes William James and Oliver Wendell Holms, Jr. at their philosophy club meeting at Harvard. Holmes hotly said to James, “To think is no less than to feel.”

So how do we integrate emotions and thinking? How do we really find what Boethius called the Consolation of Philosophy, or what Shakespeare invented in his phrase: “think feelingly”?

If these are your concerns, then this slim but incisive new book of religious and spiritual reflections, edited by Peter Wallace, will move you to the implications of those concerns. In other words, an exegesis of feeling placed in the terms of the revelations of Jesus can bring your mind and your heart to a place you have always desired, a holy place that you did not know was holy until you wrestled with your emotions as well as with your thoughts.

Emotions are a difficult vocabulary for the masculine side of life and it is particularly valuable that these seven essays, sermons really, were written a century ago by Scottish Presbyterian New Testament scholar teaching at Knox College in Toronto, Canada.

For too many years, we collectively have labored under false assumptions about how much we can or should embrace either emotion or reason. It is often difficult even today for a man to credit his feeling—as it was in Law’s era to assume that a woman’s thinking was suspect. These wrongs are addressed by the remarkable, really beautiful perceptions of Jesus and his emotions in this book.

This book is not hard to read—but it is profound.

It is not just thoughtful—it is itself emotional.

Nothing could be more relevant to us in this time of climate catastrophes, refugees, epidemics, violence and economic injustices. What in God’s name are we to do with our emotions? Whether one thinks of the prayers and tears of Jacques Derrida or the tears of Mary and Jesus, we are now in the place of the sorrows of the heart and the rebirth of our soul.


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Video: Duncan Newcomer talks about ’30 Days with Abraham Lincoln’

Kristin Frangoulis interviews Duncan Newcomer on Good Morning Belfast.



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Robert Wicks’ new ‘Tao of Ordinariness’ is timely wisdom in the ‘Narcissistic Age’ of Trump

Dr. Robert J. Wicks, psychologist and author, speaks to service members, civilians and dependents about bouncing back from trauma during Resiliency Day in hangar 92 at RAF Molesworth airbase, United Kingdom. The former U.S. Marine Corps captain has spent 35 years delivering his message of coping and resiliency to audiences that include military personnel, first responders, health care providers and educators. (U.S. Air Force photos by Staff Sgt. Ashley Hawkins/Released)


“Once you accept your limits, a key aspect of ordinariness, the opportunity for growth and depth will seem almost limitless.”
Robert Wicks in The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

In two decades of interviewing the internationally renowned psychologist Dr. Robert Wicks—whose vocation is always aimed at helping the world’s most vulnerable to recover from trauma—I cannot recall a more timely book. This new book is as close to “ripped from the headlines”—a phrase popularized by Law & Order fans—as anything Wicks has written in his dozens of earlier books and countless articles.

Dr. Robert J. Wicks signs books for the men and women gathered at the base in the UK for Resiliency Day.

He lays out the core of this book in a single line: “Once you accept your limits, a key aspect of ordinariness, the opportunity for growth and depth will seem almost limitless.” Then, he sums up the current crisis we all are facing with a four-page analysis of President Trump’s greatest failing: a narcissism that prevents him from admitting any limitation and drives him to ferociously attack any perceived opponent.

“I was surprised,” I said to Wicks in our interview about this book. “This time, you very directly address our American crisis—pointedly naming and describing the core problem of Trump’s approach to leadership. Of course, all of your books are timely in the sense that you are addressing aspects of trauma—and healing responses—that are relevant to professionals and first responders around the world. But in this new book, I was struck by that laser light you aimed at Trump.”

“Well, this is not the first time I have addressed this,” he qualified in his responses. “But, you are right: I do name him and talk about him directly here in a new way. Why did I choose to do that? In the case of Donald Trump, the destruction being done is so overwhelming that, in fact, I felt not simply the freedom—but also the need to call it out.”

But wait! Before Trump supporters think they need to counter attack—get a copy of the book and read it! You may be surprised.

Remember: This is Dr. Robert Wicks, the master of helpful analysis, who is writing about Trump. That means: He writes in a compassionate way, setting the challenges of the presidency in context. Wicks even finds and highlights an example when Trump was humbly honest about a tragedy within his family.

Lincoln and Trump in Contrast: ‘Our Better Angels’

As always, Wicks’ goal here is not to take up a partisan crusade. His goal is to call all of us to our better angels, as Abraham Lincoln would put it.

In our interview, we began to discuss another new book, 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln—Quiet Fire. There’s a dramatic contrast between the two presidents, Wicks said. Trump struggles with narcissism—a truth that even most Trump supporters would acknowledge. In contrast, Lincoln embodies the main message of Wicks’ new book: Humbly and honestly acknowledging our limitations will open up limitless possibilities.

“Lincoln is a great example of what I’m writing about,” Wicks said. “Because Lincoln suffered so much personally, one of the things he recognized is that he couldn’t go it alone. He embodied the old African proverb: If you want to go fast—go alone; if you want to go far—go together. As Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us in Team of Rivals, Lincoln recognized that he had to bring people from the other side into his orbit. He knew that he had to work with this company of strangers.

“This important insight of Lincoln really grew out of his own disorder and pain, which had softened his soul and provided him this vision of what needed to be done—both personally and interpersonally—if government was going to be effective. Lincoln really is a model of what I’m writing about in my book.”

Understanding Wicks’ focus: It’s all about you and me

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

Although Wicks is referencing presidents here—that’s not the focus of his book. This book, like so many other Wicks books, is a letter addressed to—us.

You and me.

Wicks continued, “I would say that, while my other books have been timely, they were not written as such a direct reaction to the moment. That’s why I would describe this book as counter cultural. I am trying to counter this overwhelming culture of narcissism that seems to be surrounding us, right now.”

“I agree,” I said. “This new book seems to be a compassionate letter to readers about how to face all these disturbing—and sometimes tempting—examples we see.”

Wicks said, “What you’re saying makes me think of the story in the book about a woman who came to one of my talks, then walked up to me afterward and surprised me by saying, ‘Your presentation isn’t what I expected. Somehow I thought you would talk down to us. Instead you spoke about yourself, shared stories and ideas. You walked with us.’

“What I’m doing in this new book is inviting people to stop chasing these narcissistic examples and images we see all around us. Everywhere we turn, we see people chasing approval or reputation or wealth or fame. We all need to lean back and take a breath and begin to remember honestly our own limitations—and also our signature strengths and gifts.”

“That’s how you’re defining ‘ordinariness,’ ” I said. “It’s this honest mix of limitations and gifts.”

He continued, “And, then we need to add: One of the greatest gifts we can share with others is a sense of peace—but you can’t share what you don’t have.”

Tackling Trump to Recognize Our Own Temptations

Here is how Wicks turns this message back on himself: If we are going to be honest with each other, then he is going to be honest with us, as well. That’s Wicks’ signature style that runs through many of his books.

Why even stop to think about Trump’s example of raging narcissism? As a corrective. As a way to avoid the temptation to respond to rage with more rage. Wicks writes: “It helps me come to my senses when wrapped in my own personal experiences and exhibitions of egoism. In such instances, I am also helped to recall the temptations to typecast people like Trump or others in ways that prevent me from seeing their gifts.”

He doesn’t want us to escape the book’s most crucial message: This crisis is really about how we will respond when confronted with narcissism.

He is telling readers: In the end, all can control in this crisis is how will respond myself.

Why this matters as we approach the holidays

In his core message, Wicks is handing us a timely dose of his wise counseling just as millions of Americans are preparing for family gatherings at the year-end holidays. He is warning: Before you march into encounters with people you think you need to confront in an aggressive way—first, soften your own heart and remember that compassion is the key to community. Honestly assess your own limitations and gifts.

Because this is a Robert J. Wicks book, of course, the counselor eventually draws a line under the lessons he has shared with us—and then offers practical ideas for responding. Flip to page 110 or 125 or 197 and you will find Wicks-style lists: Bullet points of steps we can take and questions we can ask ourselves to begin the process of reclaiming our own humility and simplicity.

“This idea of ‘ordinariness’ is my way of describing this need to counter this culture that is mesmerized by image-making, spin and a desire for power and advantage to fuel our own egoism,” he said.

I said, “Like the photo on the front cover of the book—someone sitting on cliff looking out at a beautiful landscape—your message is really a call to stop for a moment and clear our heads.”

“That’s what I’m saying: Stop. Rest for a moment,” Wicks said. “Let’s look at what it means to travel lightly, in terms of not carrying the burdens of society today. Let’s become intrigued again by what is really good about ourselves and our institutions.”

And that is the closing message of his book, as well. On the final page, he writes: “The time for rediscovery of the virtue of ordinariness by all of us is now. Paradoxically, this virtue can help us to be so much more than we are now, if we begin to value and explore it anew as individuals and as a society.”

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The Hope of Unity on Our National Day of Thanksgiving, 2019

Contributing Columnist

In December 1864, the famous illustrator Thomas Nast met with President Lincoln and created this elaborate illustration for Harpers Weekly (see below for a larger version). The image was supposed to convey to all Americans that Lincoln was ready and willing to welcome Confederates—even to Christmas dinner at the White House—if they would surrender and rejoin the U.S.

Like many Americans, I am perplexed and frustrated by just how deep the divisions in our nation run.

It has become increasingly difficult to even talk with those whose politics reside across the aisle from where we stand.

Perhaps in the greater Washington, DC, area where I live the tension is greater than in other parts of the country. Unfortunately, I fear this is not the case. Rather than offer evidence, which abounds this autumn, I’ll ask you to look at your own life and assess how deep the divide really is.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and you can now move on to another article here at ReadTheSpirit.

For those whose eyes fall on this paragraph, the question is obvious: How do we move from division to a more-unified state of living?

I believe that the answers are before us—and I wish to highlight one as we head into the nation’s season of Thanksgiving.

The Past is Prelude

As bad as our national divisions are today, they were far worse in October of 1863. Duncan Newcomer writes in his newly released 30 Days with Abraham Lincoln about what the founder of Thanksgiving, Abraham Lincoln, found to unify a bleeding nation.

It’s important to keep in mind that in October 1863 the outcome of the war was far from decided. Yes, the killing fields of Antietam (23,100 killed), Gettysburg (51,000 killed), and Chickamauga (34,600 killed) were behind the nation. But the ruthless battles of the Wilderness (29,000 killed), Cold Harbor (15,500 killed), Spotsylvania Courthouse (30,000 killed), and Sherman’s March to the Sea (No Known Tally of Soldiers Killed) lay ahead. (For a timeline of major Civil War battles, see this “American Experience” page.)

These are more than numbers to me. I live in Fredericksburg Virginia. Within a ten mile radius of my home are the visitors’ centers for the battles of the Wilderness, Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Total casualties of these four battles combined? More than 108,000 men. The combined population of Spotsylvania County, Orange County, and Fredericksburg City where these battles were fought at the outset of the Civil War? About 32,000.

Thanksgiving: What Is Required; What is Omitted

In the midst of such tragedy, what could possibly unite the people?

For Lincoln it was the idea of being American.

Newcomer explains that for our 16th President, America was a “mindset,” not a place. He “invites us to acknowledge that Americans did not create this free nation on our own; in Lincoln’s mind, a divine assistance make it possible.” And it is a call to this mindset that Lincoln is inviting all peoples, North and South, in his declaration establishing a national day of Thanksgiving.

However, Newcomer also notes that Lincoln’s declaration is as important for what it omits as for what it says. “He never mentions Pilgrims or Indians. He makes no reference to Christ or churches. … In fact, Lincoln only asks people to adopt a meditative, grateful state of mind in their praise—no matter where they are or who they are.”

It is this that I keep in mind as Republican and Democrat and independent family members gather the fourth Thursday of each November in our home or in the home of my parents. And it is this that I try and keep in mind when political conversations with those I profoundly disagree turn difficult.

What Unites Is More Important than What Divides

I never felt this mindset more profoundly than I did Thanksgiving 2018, when my family gathered at my home for the holiday. Like the nation as a whole, my family has liberals and conservatives, Trump lovers and Never Trumpers. We are a family of profound, clear-eyed faith, and faith sojourners less sure of what faith is than that there is more to life than what any one of us can see and understand.

That day, not being one to openly, or even privately, pray, I asked my father to bless our family meal. And in that moment, we collectively thanked god for bringing us together, and asked him to bless my son Austin who just a month later would be in Parris Island, South Carolina, undergoing basic training to become a United States Marine.

At that moment, what separated us was far less important than what united us.

Our love for Austin, our prayers for his future and his safety, and our overwhelming love of one another and the nation we share.



Care to learn more about our illustration?

CLICK THIS VERSION of the 1864 Nast illustration to see a much larger version. The historical site HarpWeekly has a detailed explanation of this elaborate collage of images.



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