Missy Buchanan helps us talk across the generations

Cover Missy Buchanan Voices of Aging

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Missy Buchanan is the first person to point out that—despite her seven popular books and her national advocacy on behalf of aging Americans—she’s not an expert in traditional terms.

“I don’t have a doctorate. I’m not a university researcher. I’m not a medical doctor. I’m not an ordained pastor. I’m just—well, I’m just me,” she says. “But, you know what? Often that’s how God works: God calls unlikely people to go out and do the work that needs to be done.”

However, as her readers nationwide and viewers of Good Morning America know, Missy’s talents begin with careful listening—the main discipline she tries to teach to her ever-growing audience nationwide. When her own parents were in their final years of life, she listened attentively to them. She listened to their friends. And, as she began writing about the spiritual lives of Americans aged 80 and older, she found that older men and women were eager to give her an earful.

Good Morning America Robin Roberts talks with coauthor Missy Buchanan about Lucimarian 2003

Missy Buchanan on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts at the time of the book launch.

That’s how she wound up twice appearing on Good Morning America, after co-authoring the memoir of GMA host Robin Roberts’ mother Lucimarian Roberts.

A CALL IN THE NIGHT

One night, Missy was at home with her husband Barry in Rockwall, Texas, when the phone rang. “And there was this woman with the sweetest little voice, asking, ‘Is this Missy Buchanan?’”

Missy said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“And, is this the same Missy Buchanan who wrote the book Living with Purpose?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Missy repeated.

Then, Lucimarian Roberts said, “You don’t know me but I think you know my daughter, Robin Roberts of Good Morning America.”

That night, a two-year friendship began that extended through an emotional launch of Lucimarian’s co-written book, My Story, My SongMissy’s appearances on Good Morning America—and then, all-too-soon after the book’s debut, Lucimarian’s death.

Missy Buchanan with Lucimarian Roberts daughter of Robin Roberts of Good Morning America

Missy Buchanan and Lucimarian Roberts as their book was launched.

“As we began this book, she still was living in Mississippi close to Biloxi where she had moved with her husband, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen,” Missy says. “I would travel back and forth to Mississippi and would sit with Lucimarian in her living room. She would talk; I would listen.”

There was an urgency driving this project. “The week before the book launch in 2012, she had been in the hospital,” Missy recalls. “But that spring, we had such a memorable gathering of about 350 of her friends and family. She was able to sign books all one day and the next day, too. All of the people who came had wonderful things to say about her. Then, she died in August, that year.”

The sharing of stories is such a powerful experience, Missy says, “that Lucimarian Roberts really became a cheerleader for me. She had chosen me to help her tell her story because she found my first book Living with Purpose, so helpful in her own life. And, of course, when we began this new book, I showed up at her home for that first conversation with so many questions I had prepared. I didn’t need to ask a one of them—the stories just flowed and it became the book.”

Missy kept listening. “The most important thing was helping her to tell her story. And it was such a pleasure to do this. She was so encouraging to me. I remember she’d end every conversation with these words: ‘I love you. You keep writing and speaking. We need to hear this. We need it.’ Every time. And that’s what I keep doing.”

INVITING US TO TALK ACROSS GENERATIONS

Voices of Aging author Missy Buchanan author photo

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Now, in her seventh book, Missy invites adults young and old into dialogue, based on thousands of conversations she has experienced through the years. Voices of Aging is subtitled Adult Children and Aging Parents Talk with GodIn the book, Missy presents both sides of 20 conversations on topics including: “The Car” (and whether it’s still smart to drive), “Doctors and Hospitals,” “Money,” “Holidays” and “Boundaries.”

Recognize your own family in that list? If her book can help your family through even one of these 20 topics—you’ll be glad you discovered Missy’s book today.

This is an inspirational book, including recommended Bible verses and short prayers that families might use if faith is a daily part of your relationships. But—as important as talking with God is to most of Missy’s readers—the real power of this new book is that it gets both generations talking with each other!

And, believe it or not, this book is not a downer! There’s a chapter on “Laughter” that will be a welcome relief to readers, for example. Missy’s tone through all of her books (check out her 2013 book Joy Boosters) is relentless optimism. As Missy describes this, it’s the central value of hope that runs like an artery through her life of faith.

“What I’m trying to do is reconnect these millions of Americans who have been all but forgotten by their churches,” she explains. “That’s what got me started on this work.”

A CHURCH GROWTH ISSUE

As you will learn this week in an OurValues series from University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker: It’s time to stop thinking about “aging” as an issue affecting someone else. Right now we are meeting aging America—and “they” are us!

Nearly every congregation in America is eager to welcome more men, women and their families. Yet, most church-growth programs focus almost entirely on young adults—while congregations are abandoning countless older members because they can no longer drive, or need help perhaps with wheelchairs. In addition to exiling all of those men and women—congregations often are pushing away their adult children and who can’t find Sunday-morning options to cover their caregiving duties.

That’s the truth Missy discovered a decade ago, when she began her nationwide mission by simply writing devotional readings for her own parents, adding them page by page to a home-made notebook and eventually making copies for an ever-growing circle of friends.

“This was born out of my own experiences with my parents,” she says. “When I began, I had no intention of becoming a national advocate on these issues. But I discovered that there were all of these people out there who had invested so much of their lives in their communities and their churches—then, once they had trouble attending regularly—their churches forgot them.”

At first, Missy thought of buying some inspirational books for older people, then using them to help lead devotional experiences among her parents’ friends. “But what happened at the bookstores really surprised me! I asked, ‘Do you have any inspirational books for seniors?’ And, they would lead me to the graduation section!”

She laughs. “So I would have to redefine what I wanted. And I would hear, ‘Well, there are all sorts of books written about senior citizens–but something inspirational?’ ”

She found shelves groaning with books about the problems of aging, how to avoid the effects of aging, financial planning—”but nothing inspirational written in language that speaks to their hearts, especially the hearts of men and women who are 80 and older.”

A former teacher armed with a masters in education, Missy began writing and sharing her own inspirational readings. Her first short prayer-poems were voiced from the collective experiences of older adults she met through her parents.

“I wrote them in the first person as if the person reading them was talking to God,” Missy says. “That’s the book that Lucimarian Roberts found and often liked to read from.”

Younger adults might think that older men and women would be experts at prayer, but that isn’t the case as they live through the often disorienting experiences of advanced age. “I regularly talk to older people who tell me, ‘As I’m getting older, I can’t pray the way I used to pray.’ ”

And Missy always asks, “Tell me what you mean.”

She listens. “Often they tell me, ‘I can’t formulate the words. I can’t make the words come to say what’s on my heart now.’ So, that’s what I try to do through all of my books—help their voices rise.”

She says, “You may think these books aren’t for you right now. But you may not realize that you can become the companion for someone on this journey by making time to talk, to share—and to listen.”

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

Care to read more?

VISIT MISSY—Click on her photo, above, to visit her web page, but you’ll hear most frequently from the author by following her on Twitter or connecting with her on Facebook.

Logo of We Are Caregivers online magazineEXPLORE OUR RESOURCES—ReadTheSpirit publishes a wide range of resources on aging, coping and caregiving. We publish the online magazine known as We Are Caregivers; and our ReadTheSpirit bookstore features a number of books of special interest to caregivers and senior citizens. This week, Dr. Wayne Baker’s OurValues project also is publishing a special series on Aging America, looking both at the emerging facts—and hopeful trends.

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Ben Pratt. Here are …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘EACH DAY CAN BE A PILGRIMAGE’

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

That way, each day can be a pilgrimage.

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’M INTERESTED IN THE STORY’

Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff color flyer thumbnail

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

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

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

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

These moments make the day delicious.

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

BEN: I don’t think that way.

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

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

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

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

‘AT THE BACK OF THE ORCHESTRA’

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

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

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

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

‘WE ARE PEOPLE OF A STORY’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsCaregivingChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Marcus Borg inteview on ‘Convictions’

Cover Marcus Borg Convictions

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A decade ago, Marcus Borg gave readers his passionate manifesto for renewal, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, which he described as “scholarship, experience and memory” blended across 200 pages. The book spread like wildfire. To this day, when I travel as editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, if I ask groups of men and women to name a Marcus Borg book they have enjoyed, I most often hear about that little book with the two out-stretched hands on the cover.

Marcus’s nine books after Heart of Christianity range from books about Jesus and Paul to the first volume in what will be a series of novels. But, Heart of Christianity holds a special place in the Marcus Borg library. That book’s passion allowed readers in communities large and small to recognize in Marcus a friend—a faithful and compassionate companion in their spiritual journeys.

The news today is: Marcus is back with a new book that feels like a follow up to The Heart of Christianity. It’s called Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most and, in this case, although the book rests on Marcus’s considerable scholarship, this book mainly explores the roles of “experience and memory” in our spiritual journeys.

The writing style in Convictions starts with more than 100 short nuggets about various aspects of faith—each with a bold-faced headline. Then, Marcus organizes these nuggets into 11 chapters with thematic titles, such as “God Is Real and a Mystery,” “Salvation Is More about This Life than an Afterlife,” “Christians Are Called to Peace and Nonviolence,” and “To Love God Is to Love Like God.”

Convictions conveys an overall message that is both simple and urgently needed: Change is a good and natural part of Christian life. (Just in case you question that assumption, right off the bat, Marcus devotes 2 pages to a speed-of-light tour of the dramatic changes throughout Christian history from Jesus’s era to today.)

Marcus reminds us: Change is a normal process in Christianity—but change is more than just history—it’s a personal journey. As millions of Americans are aging, he argues, it’s time to talk openly across the generations. It’s time to talk honestly, he tells us, about how our childhood assumptions concerning faith usually pass through what Marcus calls the “conversions” that are a rich part of becoming an adult—and then can deepen into the “convictions” that form a foundation for a long and meaningful life.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcus Borg. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MARCUS BORG
ABOUT “CONVICTIONS’

DAVID: Change is on our minds. That’s true for millions of Americans and people around the world, as well. Recently, we’ve featured interviews with a number of popular authors writing about dramatic changes in Christianity—Barbara Brown Taylor and Philip Jenkins. In a couple of weeks, we’ll publish an interview with Brian McLaren about his upcoming book We Make the Road by Walking, which opens with these words: “You are not finished yet. You are in the making. You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change and grow.”

They’re all talking about change. Your book argues that change is a natural part of a healthy Christian life. Why are we hearing so much about change, right now?

Marcus Borg courtesy of the authorMARCUS: All of us—all of the authors you’ve just mentioned—are at an age, now, that means we’ve navigated through lives full of change. We grew up in an insular world with a limited view of reality in which we took the conventions around us for granted. I don’t know the ages of Barbara and Philip and Brian, but I know that I grew up in a pre-civil-rights-movement era with all kinds of false assumptions about the relationships between Christianity and the church and the world.

This is true for millions of Americans, as well. Perhaps some of your readers can still remember the lyrics of songs on the radio Hit Parade in the early 1950s. I can still sing some of them today (and he begins to sing) …

Heart of my heart, I love that melody
Heart of my heart, brings back a memory.

And I’m sure some of your readers will remember …

Mr. Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.

And there was that very popular hiking song, The Happy Wanderer:

I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.
Val-deri,Val-dera.

I’ll stop right there, but the point I’m making is that many of us, of a certain age, grew up in a world of conventions that were taken for granted by everyone, in a way that we do not experience today.

DAVID: OK, so I’ve been Googling along with you, as you’ve been singing these songs. And, I can confirm that in that trio of songs you just recalled, you’ve just nailed a very precise period of 1953-1954. That’s pretty amazing. Those songs were popular in other recordings, at other times, but you were simply able to reach back into your memory and give us the soundtrack to a specific period when you were 11 and 12 years old. That’s the “childhood” period you reference in your new book. It’s amazing to see how powerfully those early years in our lives stay with us throughout our lives.

MARCUS: That’s my point. And I am not alone in this. Growing up, I thought I knew something about the world; I thought I knew what Christianity was all about when I was just a boy. And yet, our country had not yet fully experienced the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War—I could list so many other major changes in the world that we had yet to experience.

DAVID: You write in your book: “I grew up in the world of denominational division … the great divide was between Catholics and Protestants. In my Lutheran and Protestant context, we were deeply skeptical about whether Catholics were really Christians. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, a major issue was the fact that he was Catholic. Could a Protestant vote for a Catholic president? The issue was not only political, but local and personal—and eternal. We Lutherans—at least the Lutherans I knew—were quite sure that Catholics couldn’t be saved.  … They were wrong; we were right.”

You’re a bit older than I am, but I can recall that Kennedy era, too. Your point here is that people who claim they want to a version of Christianity that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years—well, most of them don’t know what they’re demanding. As Philip Jenkins has pointed out in a whole series of his books, much of Christian history involved painful conflict and, often, blindness to the world’s most needy people. In fact, the history of Christianity is change.

MARCUS: I like the lines you read a moment ago from Brian’s new book: “You are not finished yet.” This is such an important point. So many of us, as Americans, grew up assuming that our own form of Christianity—what we experienced as Christianity in our family and in our community—was the same, was unchanging and that there really was only our one form of Christianity. We were right; all others had to be wrong.

When you mention Barbara and Philip and Brian, I think that we’ve all lived through so many changes that we’ve moved from our original provincial views of reality and of Christianity to one that is pluralistic. We want to talk and write openly about this journey—because lots of people find themselves on this journey today.

A MODEL FOR EXPLORING
OUR “OWN LIFE JOURNEYS”

DAVID: Online reviews of your book tend to stress two points: One is that this book doesn’t really contain big revelations for readers who’ve followed your writing over the years; the second point is that this book is uniquely inspiring. This book is touching people on a personal level.

MARCUS: I would call it the most consistently personal book I’ve written. Pretty much every chapter begins with what I absorbed as a child growing up in the church, and then I look at the changes that have occurred in the decades since—and then I write about the convictions that flow from those changes. And, because these “changes” are foundational kinds of transitions, I call them “conversions” in the book.

If we were to describe this in three C’s, I go from the Conventions of my childhood through the Conversions of my adulthood to the Convictions I now hold. But this is much more than a personal book, because I’m convinced that there are millions of other people who have experienced these three C’s as well. This becomes a very useful triad for anybody above a certain age to use in thinking bout their life and faith as they read.

I haven’t done a lot of talks out on the road, just yet, about this new book. But when I travel and talk about this book, I’m going to encourage people to try to get in touch with their childhood memories. What did they absorb and internalize about Christianity when they were around the age of 12 or so? Then, I want to encourage people to think about all of the changes in the world and in our own lives. I want to ask people: What were the circumstances that led you to change?

DAVID: And finally, in this process you’re describing in the book, you reach the foundation stones that are described by the title of your book: the Convictions. What does that word mean to you?

MARCUS: I define that as foundational ways of seeing that are not easily shaken. Through this process, I think I am giving people a model for getting in touch with their own life journeys and reaching some of these foundations, these convictions, as I call them.

AN INVITATION TO SHARE THE JOURNEY

DAVID: I really like the way you’re posing the invitation—and describing the process—in this book. Here at ReadTheSpirit, I’ve been working with Dr. Wayne Baker on the rollout of his book, United America, which is based on years of research at the University of Michigan into values that actually unite nearly all Americans. I’ve been involved in a series of small groups with Wayne and, I can tell you, when people gather to talk about American values—they arrive with all kinds of anxieties. I can remember one participant showing up for a first session with United America telling me, “There are going to be fireworks tonight!”

But Wayne surprises people when he presents this material. You and I have just talked about the soundtrack of our lives—our memories of music. Wayne often starts his programs by showing participants famous photographs of America. He’s actually put his “Images of America” photo gallery online. He asks participants to remember when they first saw these iconic images and then he invites them to choose a picture that still holds deep meaning. This transforms these gatherings from potential fireworks to communities of people remembering—and talking about the dramatic changes in their lives.

I see your new book inviting readers into a similar process around their religious beliefs.

MARCUS: You’ve just described the potential of this kind of process very well. This is a journey and I am inviting groups to try a process that follows the three parts in my book: Think about your memories; think about major changes in your life; think about your convictions today. Groups may choose to do all three things in one setting, or they may prefer to begin with the first couple of elements and spend some time talking about their memories and the changes in their lives. They may want to talk about convictions right away, or later in the process. Each group can decide, of course.

The book is very flexible. People could enjoy this book by themselves. Or, they could use this book with a discussion group. Or, they could plan a special program or retreat.

Some readers may find in this book a model for a longer spiritual journey and it is possible to spread out the process of reading and reflecting and discussing over a period of, oh, over an entire year if people choose that route.

DAVID: Let’s close this interview by earmarking our next interview. For the benefit of our readers, what will be talking about in our interview next year?

MARCUS: The second novel will come out in the second half of 2015, if all goes well. I hope to have it done in four or five months and then, of course, there’s a whole process of publishing the book. So, next time, we’ll talk about the second novel.

DAVID: Well, until then … keep writing.

CARE TO READ MORE FROM MARCUS BORG?

ReadTheSpirit has published an almost annual series of interviews with Marcus Borg. Here are some of the subjects we’ve discussed …

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With Groups

The Ram Dass interview: Smiling as he teaches about ‘Polishing the Mirror’

Ram Dass photo by Dassima Murphy 2012 used courtesy of Ram DassBaby Boomers know Ram Dass as an American celebrity from the 1960s who came back from India in 1971 to publish a strange square-shaped book: Be Here Now. Some call that book “the Baby Boomers’ Bible”—and there is a good argument behind such a claim. We recently reported on pulp magazine pioneer Ray Palmer, who began bringing Americans popularized stories about Asian religion even before World War II. But it wasn’t until the era of Be Here Now that millions of Americans could immerse themselves in full-scale Asian spirituality.

Since its debut, Be Here Now has racked up a stunning total of 2 million copies sold—and counting. Ram Dass has built on his original message in 11 additional books, a series of audio recordings, documentary films and short videos. Ram Dass also is famous for his 1978 establishment of the Seva Foundation, a highly respected charity that primarily focuses on curing illnesses of the eye in Asia, Africa and Native American communities.

Then, in 1997, Ram Dass made headlines once again for suffering a devastating stroke. As Baby Boomers, we were confronting our own looming mortality as we watched this perennially smiling genie of the ‘60s utterly humbled by his own body. As Ram Dass puts it himself: “I went from driving my sports car wherever I wanted to go—to being a passenger.”

Now, flash forward 16 years to 2013 and here is a personal note from me, David Crumm, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit: Over the decades, I have interviewed Ram Dass a half dozen times. This summer, I read his new book, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Heart, with great interest.

In the opening pages, Ram Dass briefly retells the dramatic story that many Baby Boomers know so well: As a rising star in the Harvard faculty, 30-something psychologist Dr. Richard Alpert teamed up with psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary. In the new book, Ram Dass understates their titanic collision: “Meeting Tim was a major turning point in my life.” No kidding! The two Harvard scholars experimented with psychedelics, beginning with the mushrooms common in ancient Native American cultures. Leary and Alpert, later to become Ram Dass, were twin lightning rods, interacting with a Who’s Who of leading spiritual lights—from Aldous Huxley to Alan Watts and far beyond. They grabbed hold of the forces they were discovering—Ram Dass soon studying in India with his Hindu guru. Collectively, they pumped high-octane spiritual fuel into Baby Boomer culture.

When I learned that, these days, Ram Dass prefers to do interviews via video Skype, I was even more curious. Most Read The Spirit author interviews are conducted via telephone. On Skype, how would he look at age 82?

The answer: He’s old. Ram Dass says it that way in his book—he’s old. He’s noticeably slower and more deliberate in his expressive hand gestures. But, those who recall Ram Dass in his prime will be pleased to know that his sparkling eyes are undimmed and, when he gets going, he still likes to throw his head back and smile with that big, toothy grin we know so well. Post-stroke, aphasia continues to slow his speech. He must consciously think through his responses, so the words in this hour-long interview came slowly and often with pauses between phrases. Sometimes, we would stop so that I could read the words he had just spoken back to him, letting him gather his thoughts so he could choose his next words. (I haven’t included those repetitions in the following highlights of the interview.)

There is great inspiration in the 2013 life and work of Ram Dass, whether you are drawn toward Eastern religious traditions or not. As Baby Boomers, we take heart in seeing one of our most colorful mentors take old age and disability in stride. Sure, he’s a passenger these days—but, whatever seat he’s occupying in that sports car, he’s still speeding ahead of us toward our collective horizon line.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH RAM DASS
FROM HIS MAUI HOME ON ‘POLISHING THE MIRROR’

DAVID: The last time we talked, it was 2000 and you were just finishing Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. I was a newspaper correspondent, specializing in reporting on religion. Now, more than a decade has passed—feels like far more than a decade! We’re professional colleagues, you and I, but more than that—a lot of Baby Boomers think of you as a character in our own life stories. You’re our “friend,” in that sense. You’ve been an influential teacher and writer and, like a genie, you keep popping up in our lives. So, as an old friend to many, tell us a bit about what life’s like there at your Maui home.

RAM DASS: I came to Maui some years ago and vowed that I wouldn’t fly anymore. After a life of traveling city after city—moving all the time—I got here and decided to explore contentment. And, I am content. It’s just wonderful here. As we’re talking, I’m looking out and can see the ocean. The rains come very often here and I’m surrounded by such beautiful flowers.

DAVID: I’m also a longtime friend and colleague of Don Lattin. Several years ago, we featured an in-depth interview with Don and recommended his book The Harvard Psychedelic Club. I know Don talked to you while reporting that book about you and your old friends, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil and Timothy Leary. So, tell us what you think. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Do you recommend Don’s book?

RAM DASS: I’ve known Don since he was religion editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, but I am not completely comfortable with that book. There were many other people active in that whole era and the story was more complex than what he writes. So, no, I wouldn’t recommend that book.

Ram Dass Cover 1971 Be Here Now

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

DAVID: But you certainly haven’t repudiated that wild era. In fact, you write about it honestly in the opening pages of your new book. This new book is mainly focused on spiritual teaching, which we’ll talk about in a moment. But, in the first few pages, you write about your early career. I’m fascinated especially by the way you still emphasize the importance of your three most famous words: “Be Here Now.” After more than 40 years, you’re still saying: There’s great wisdom in that phrase. Is that a fair thing to say?

RAM DASS: Yes. Yes, that is fair to say. When you delve into the moment, the moment right now—and you’re right now in the moment, the moment, the moment—then you are going into the spiritual life. The moment doesn’t include time and space. It’s just here. (And Ram Dass gently taps his heart.) In here. In here. Is there wisdom in those words? Yeah, I think: Very much so.

RAM DASS:
‘JUST WALKING EACH OTHER HOME.’

DAVID: Because you’ve been such an influence on a whole generation, I asked other writers what questions I should ask you in this interview. The one I’ve chosen is from Tom Stella, who was a Catholic priest for many years and now is an author and teacher of spirituality from his base in Colorado. Tom said, “Ask him about the line that I’ve repeated—and I’m sure lots of others have as well. Ram Dass says, ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ Ask him to talk about that line.’”

When reading your new book, Tom’s question jumped out at me because one of the first sub-chapters is called “The Road Home.” So, please, talk about what you mean in this metaphor.

RAM DASS: Well, “home” is the one. It’s God. When I went into psychedelics, I had an experience where I felt everything being stripped away from my self. I was in my heart, my spiritual heart. All I could say was: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home inside.”

Then, when I went to India, my guru looked at me with unconditional love. And I remember that as: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.”

We all spend so much time living in this outer world, then we encounter things that force us into our inner world. The inner world is what I consider to be home.

In “walking each other home,” I’m talking about how we as individuals—individual persons or individual countries with all of the separation that we experience—through moving toward inner consciousness, can become one. That’s a shift in consciousness. If we can find a way to walk each other home, we could reach a point where there is no more conflict between egos and nations.

RAM DASS:
‘THE WAY THE WORLD CHANGES IS HEART TO HEART …’

DAVID: This is a good place to ask you about the hard and rewarding work of “spirituality.” It’s a term you proudly use—and so do millions of American men and women, many of whom prefer that term to “religion.” This spring, the famous Rabbi David Wolpe issued a challenge in TIME magazine to anyone who claims to be “spiritual but not religious.” Wolpe pretty much described spirituality as easy and selfish. He wrote, “It’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change.”

RAM DASS: Institutions don’t change the world in fundamental ways. The way the world changes is heart to heart to heart by individuals, not by institutions.

DAVID: We are speaking, today, on the same day that the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is addressing the United Nations. TIME magazine now calls her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. In her address to the UN, she said, “On the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, courage and power was born.”

RAM DASS: (smiling, then laughing out loud) That’s just what I’m talking about! I’m sure that is affecting many hearts in the august gathering of the United Nations—and I’m sure it will affect the hearts of all the people who hear her story.

You know, this was true when we began the Seva Foundation. This is what happened to the ophthalmologist Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy. He began working in a very poor village in India with just a small eye hospital that he and his family supported. But it was the heart-to-heart spiritual connection that changed everything. He was working with patients, but he really saw them as souls. He saw his hospital and all that he was doing as a way to come to God. The repercussions of that model expanded his hospital and now this work is being done all over India. It began with his spirit and it spread heart to heart.

RAM DASS: ‘POLISHING THE MIRROR’

Cover Polishing the Mirror by Ram Das

CLICK ON THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID: Then, let’s talk about the title of your new book, Polishing the Mirror, which comes out August 1 and already is on sale at Amazon. At first glance, the title could sound like the very complaint that Rabbi Wolpe raised in TIME magazine—spirituality as narcissism. But you’re not talking about polishing mirrors so we look better to ourselves, are you?

RAM DASS: We polish the mirror of our spiritual hearts, so the beauty of our soul becomes visible. That means, we polish the spiritual heart so that, from our heart, we can radiate love and compassion and consciousness and other people can get in touch with their spiritual heart, too.

These days, when I roll down the street in my wheelchair, (tapping his fingers on his chest, over his heart) I love all the people I encounter. This is really true. I really do. And when I look into their eyes, I feel that I am mirroring their spiritual heart.

I am sorry that I am not more eloquent in speaking with you, (moving his fingers to point toward his mouth) but you understand that since my stroke my words come with difficulty.

DAVID: Your words are very engaging, today. And this is a good transition to talk about what I find to be the most fresh and hopeful part of your new book: the final section on the process of aging. Some of the insights in these pages are well known to us. But, I really was struck by your teaching that describes the central question in aging as: “Can you find a place to stand in relation to change where you are not frightened by it?”

RAM DASS: When you get old, everything changes—your body changes, your family changes. You can’t do what you’ve always done, anymore. And, either you can complain about things changing—or you can be content. Instead of complaining, you can say: “Oh, yesss! Look at all this change!” You can welcome it.

When I stroked in 1997 and then was lying in the hospital, all the people around me were saying: This poor guy! He’s had a stroke! I started to think that I must be a poor guy. Somebody put up a picture of my guru on the wall of my hospital room. I looked up at that picture and I said: Where were you!?! You know: Where were you in this stroke?! You’ve been raising up my life—all the way up to this stroke.

DAVID: You describe yourself in the book as depressed and angry, your faith deeply shaken.

RAM DASS: I thought I knew about aging and changing. (He smiles broadly.) As it turned out, this stroke has been an incredible grace for me. It is true that, in the past, I played golf and drove around in my sports car and I liked to play my cello. Now, I can’t do any of those things.

Instead, I’ve turned further inward—and that has been wonderful. That was grace.

In 1985, I wrote a book with Paul Gorman called How Can I Help? After the stroke, I found myself asking: How Can You Help Me? Instead of being this big, strong, powerful helper who could go anywhere and do anything—I find myself now dependent on so many people around me.

Now, as I say these things, you have to admit: It sounds bad doesn’t it? (He smiles knowingly.) Our culture says it’s bad to be dependent on others, right? Not a good thing! But, you know, we are all souls. That’s what Dr. Venkataswamy discovered in his clinic.

DAVID: And now we’ve come full circle to our previous interview, haven’t we? I remember interacting with you, at that time, just a few years after your stroke when Still Here was coming out—and that book supposedly held your teachings on Aging, Changing and Dying.

RAM DASS: (Still smiling broadly.) When we talked, I had written that book about what I thought aging and dying was all about. But I was in my 60s. Now, I’m in my 80s and this new book talks about what it’s really like. Now, I am aging. I am approaching death. I’m getting closer to the end. (He pauses, tilts his head back and looks out at the Pacific.) I was so naive when I wrote that earlier book. Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me. (And he laughs.)

Care to read more on similar themes?

Read The Spirit publishes a series of books on caregiving, from end-of-life decisions to everyday coping with chronic illness—even a humor book by cancer survivor Rodney Curtis, called A (Cute) Leukemia. Check it out in the We Are Caregivers department of Read The Spirit.

Share this Ram Dass interview with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-“f” Facebook icons connected to this interview. Or email this interview to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

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

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Categories: CaregivingGreat With Groups

Lenten Journey 6: ‘Look into it.’ And, ‘Wonder.’

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

FOR LENT 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘Our Lent’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed the day-by-day book of inspiring stories, Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & Guide for Caregivers is publishing a new Lenten series:
Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’

Part 3: Surprised? Or, is this an invitation to a blessing?

Part 4: Legacy of imperfection and grace.
Part 5: In death … is life.

6: Intimate Departures—
‘Look into it.’ And, ‘Wonder.’

“When Pilate learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, he granted the body to Joseph (of Arimathea). Then Joseph brought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”
Mark 15: 45-6

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Tree_outside_the_window_of_the_dinner_table.jpgPhotograph by David Crumm.I HELPED TO DRESS my father and mother—and place them in their caskets. It was an intimate and sacred way to express my gratitude to them for their gift of life and their care of me. It was also an aide in my grief journey with each parent.

My mother died at age 63 in 1980 from a stroke following hip surgery. My last act while she was conscious was feeding her. The funeral director was more resistant to my request to participate in the burial preparation than my brother. When we arrived to assist in the process, her body was in a private viewing parlor resting on a gurney. She was respectfully clad in undergarments and a full-length slip. Our task was to assist in dressing her in a skirt, blouse and jewelry. It was a tender and emotional time for me as I thought about how she had nurtured me into life, fed, clothed and bathed me; laughed with and cried with me. Numerous memories, painful and joyful, filtered through my mind and heart. My brother and I worked quietly, sharing brief images, and then lifted her gently into her casket.

A similar process was repeated five years later with my father. Again, one of my last memories was feeding him before he slipped away. At the funeral home it was different. The director said that he had honored many requests to assist in the preparation of a body for a funeral, especially among parents who had lost children and infants. They knew how important the intimacy of departure can be when saying goodbye.

For my father, the deed was not done in the fancy parlor. We were escorted directly to the staff’s preparation workroom. Our father, wearing only boxer shorts, was laid out on a stainless steel worktable. As we dressed him my mind flashed through a kaleidoscope of scenes from life with him. Again, my brother and I worked quietly and carefully we placed him in his casket.

What led me to risk this behavior was observing some Roman Catholic brothers prepare the body of one of their own to bury him. It felt so right, so respectful, and so sacred. I wanted to extend the same to my beloved. Dying and death are part of our lives. To extend our caregiving to our deceased by participating more intimately in their departure is a sacred gift that walks with our beloved on their journey to eternity.

Most of us have moved away from the intimacy of our grief and turned the process of care and burial over to professionals. Perhaps we need to reconsider the emotional and spiritual price we pay for that exchange. Robert Frost exposes the painful aloneness of parents who bury a child in “Home Burial.” The father who had dug his child’s grave pleads with his wife: “Let me into your grief.”

Once again, some people are initiating home funerals as a way of assisting their grief process and making the life/death experience more intimate. Conversations are beginning to take place in Death Cafés, perhaps an off-putting name but certainly an idea that has enticed many to engage in conversations about end of life issues across our nation. These venues date to 2004, when sociologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting such cafés in Switzerland. Generally coordinated by hospice workers, these cafés have been spawned from California to Maine.

Not long ago, I was deeply moved when I attended a showing of the tender, respectful Japanese film, Departures, which tells the story of a cellist who loses his job when an orchestra disbands. He retreats to his hometown and winds up taking a job as an undertaker, performing the elaborate preparations of bodies after death. At first, his family is horrified. Later—well, watch the film unfold and you will appreciate the stirring conclusion.

Many cultures around the world follow such intimate traditions to this day. In American Muslim communities, among the men and women who attend prayers at each mosque there often are a handful trained in the sacred preparation of the dead for the simplicity of Muslim burial. This places an extra reminder in the gathering of a Muslim community: Someone praying next to you, shoulder to shoulder, may be the person who one day will bathe and wrap your lifeless body.

These are wonderments—profound, ancient stirrings of our faith—that we have tried so hard to hermetically seal away. America’s most famous undertaker, poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, won the American Book Award for The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. He argues that our desire for up-beat memorial services, often with the loved one invisibly reduced to an attractive little container of ashes, rob us of one of life’s deepest spiritual truths.

In the final pages of his book, Lynch writes: “You should see it till the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy leavetaking in a room, a cemetery chapel, at the foot of the altar. None of that. Don’t dodge it because of the weather. We’ve fished and watched football in worse conditions. It won’t take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder. And be cold. But stay until it’s over. Until it is done.”

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Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column also has been published at the website for the Day1 radio network.

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Categories: CaregivingChildren and FamiliesChristianGreat With GroupsHolidays

A Prayer for Light in Dark Times of Accidie

http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Cover_Ben_Pratt_James_Bond1.jpgCLICK THE BOOK COVER to learn more about Fleming’s spiritual themes in the James Bond novels, including much more about the challenge of accidie.AS THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE passes through the darkest season, pastoral counselor and author Dr. Benjamin Pratt shares a prayer that helps us take a first tentative step from accidie. That may sound like a strange new term, but it is a classic part of Christian teaching on the so-called 7 Deady Sins.

In addition to his current work helping caregivers nationwide—Dr. Pratt is a scholar of Ian Fleming’s literary works. Most of the Hollywood 007 blockbusters skip over the theme of accidie. But, Fleming wrote the original Bond novels to explore what he argued were the deadliest sins of our modern age. If this is news to you, then you will enjoy Dr. Pratt’s Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass.

Dr. Pratt explains:

This prayer reflects the nature of one of the original 7 Deadly Sins, accidie, which was translated in the Middle Ages as sloth or torpor. This is a spiritual condition and is distinctly different from depression. In accidie, we loose all energy for engaging the world. The needs, the goals and even the good and the evil around us do not matter enough to inspire any action.

In the Ian Fleming novels, James Bond often struggles with this sin. It was the word accidie that first drew me to serious study of these novels and the life of their creator. The word accidie appears in eleven of the fourteen Bond tales and is central to understanding James Bond—as well as the dangerous powers of the most evil demons 007 pursues. When I first encountered accidie in the Bond tales, I did not know it was one of the original 7 Deadly Sins. I had not yet discovered Ian Fleming’s long-time fascination with these themes as both a journalist and a novelist. I do know that accidie has been the most insidious sin in my own life and I agree with Fleming: Accidie is one of the most insidious sins in our world today.

If these ideas resonate in your life, we invite you to use this prayer. You are free to share it with others, as well. Simply credit Dr. Benjamin Pratt and www.ReadTheSpirit.com as the source.

Prayer for Light
in Dark Times
of Accidie

By Dr. Benjamin Pratt

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
And renew a right spirit within me.
I lament;
I resent;
I feel powerless now;
I can’t see a point, a direction, a purpose in my life.
I’ve lost my passionate spirit.
I‘ve lost my energy to struggle forward.
I’m living each day, but my heart is dry, tepid—
like a saucer of milk in the noonday sun.

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
And renew a right spirit within me.
I know what my life should feel like.
I’ve lived hard, worked hard, loved hard,
And I once believed hard, too. My faith was a rock.
I’ve thrown myself into my work, my relationships, my community.
Once, I knew I was making a difference in the world.
But, now I’m adrift without a compass.

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
And renew a right spirit within me.
I know there are countless issues crying for my energies.
I am surrounded by pressing needs, by loving people
But I’ve lost my heart for any of it.
I crawl out of bed each day and meet the day,
But my spirit, O God—my spirit feels broken.
I’m empty.

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
And renew a right spirit within me.
I’m yearning for the light of a new day.
I long for the old courage, the old calling.
Now, I’m taking this step in prayer;
I’m calling out humbly for just a taste of purpose and passion—
a ray of light in these dark times.
Fill me, O Lord, with the hope of joy—the joy of hope.

Create in me a clean heart, O God;
And renew a right spirit within me.

Amen

By Dr. Benjamin Pratt and …
Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This article also has been posted into Dr. Pratt’s column at the website for the Day1 radio network.

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Categories: CaregivingGreat With Groups

Jacob Needleman on rediscovering our world

http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005a_First_photo_of_earth_from_space_October_24_1946.jpgOur first image of the Earth from outer space, taken by a camera-equipped rocket fired in 1946.From his home in the San Francisco Bay area, Jacob Needleman still teaches, writes and, when he sits back on a quiet night to contemplate our world—he still enjoys looking up at the stars and waaaay back into his own origins. Looking to the stars? Recalling our origins? Does it sound like something out of a superhero comic book? In his newest book, Jacob Needleman says these forms of reflection are distinctively human. In a healthy way, they can reconnect us with the vast story of the Earth, so that we can recognize our role in our planet’s unfolding drama. Read Part 1 of our coverage for a more complete overview of Needleman’s new book, An Unknown World.
Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with the author in …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JACOB NEEDLEMAN
ON AN UNKNOWN WORLD

http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005e_Jacob_Needleman_An_Unknown_World_cover.jpgCLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.DAVID: As I read your latest work along with the other urgent voices we are hearing around the world today, I think of your book as an answer to writers like Yale’s James Gustave Speth who is calling for “a new narrative” that reawakens a global appreciation of the Earth.

JACOB: Yes, I’m glad if readers find that kind of vision and promise in my book. I agree that we do need a new narrative about our world, our species, ourselves—if we are to survive. I’m very glad to think of this book in that way.

DAVID: As we will point out in the first part of our coverage, Speth certainly isn’t alone. There are a surprising number of secular writers who want to form collegial relationships with religious communities. Writers like Speth and E.O. Wilson are not talking about making a sudden conversion. But, they are talking in a refreshing way about sharing a vision of the Earth between science and religion.

JACOB: I see this, too. You’re describing what really is a widespread hunger among scientists, young people and so many others. People may not want to call it “religion” or “spirituality,” but there certainly is a hunger for meaning in life.

DAVID: I’m surprised, too, at how many of these recent writers who we might call scientific skeptics also direct their readers back to childhood—to remember what first got them excited about the Earth.

http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005b_Rocket_photos_published_by_National_Geographic.jpgWIDENING OUR AWARENESS OF OURSELVES: In 1948, our snapshot of our world expanded! From single grainy images, scientists assembled this panorama of a broader section of our globe.

GOING BACK TO CHILDHOOD AND TO PLATO

JACOB: To go back to childhood is the same thing as reaching back for something we are born with and something we grow up containing. Plato would describe it as an element in ourselves that we are born with. It’s an inner need to open to something higher and greater than ourselves.

Plato referred to this as Eros, but he wasn’t using the term with a sexual meaning. It’s an inner need to open to something higher and greater than ourselves. Yes, one element of what Plato was describing is our love of knowledge and wisdom—but he also was describing our inner need to open ourselves to something higher and greater than ourselves. It’s that part of Plato’s Eros that has been repressed by secularism and scientism, and notice that I’m using that second term with “ism” attached to it. Since the time of Plato, we have known that humans have a need to be aware of something greater than ourselves. It’s an absolutely essential element of who we are—and it cannot be repressed without further damaging our future. To go back to childhood goes back to a time in life when that aspect of Platonic Eros was alive and influencing us, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams. That’s where we can join with great scientists, with searching philosophers, with religious seekers and with so many young people today. When we reach toward that point of sharing this larger need, then hope opens up for us.

DAVID: You see this as especially compelling for college-age students, right?

JACOB: Oh, yes. For example, I taught a course on Ralph Waldo Emerson and, in this digital age, I wondered: Would any students be interested? I was surprised that the students were absolutely enthralled with Emerson! So, I asked them: “Why do you like this so much?” One student said: “It brought me hope.” And other students agreed with that first student.

These are questions we all want to answer: What is our hope? How do we find it? Emerson recognized that these questions touch on something that we have largely hidden from ourselves. Many people now have forgotten these questions. Emerson knew that we needed to ask them, again.

http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005c_Jacob_Needleman_The_Stars_for_Sam.JPG.jpgA BOOK-SIZE GLIMPSE OF THE WORLD FOR KIDS: In his new book, Jacob Needleman writes about The Stars for Sam, a popular science book for young readers that forever shaped his own life.DAVID: When readers open your book, you take them right back to your childhood. So, give us a little explanation. Where did you grow up? Who was this young friend you describe in the book?

JACOB: The setting is Philadelphia, where I lived from about age 7 to 12 or 13. I open the book in the lower-middle-class neighborhood where we lived. We had difficulties making ends meet. I was already deeply interested in astronomy; I had such a sense of wonder about the world, the planets, the stars, the universe. I met my friend when I was about 10 or 11 and he was a little older than me. I give him the name Elias in the book, which wasn’t his real name. But we really would sit together on a low stone wall along a neighbor’s yard, just as I describe it. We would talk about the life, living things and the whole universe. He was a close friend and we met all the time to talk about these things. Then, he died of leukemia when he was about 14 or so. I was about 13 at the time. This was a great blow to me.

DAVID: In your new book, you also tell us about a children’s picture book that forever shaped your life: The Stars for Sam. I’ve got a copy of a 1960s edition of the book, which originally was published back in the 1930s. It’s a straight-up scientific picture book for kids. It’s not fiction, not fanciful at all. What’s so important about witnessing scientific wonders?

JACOB NEEDLEMAN: HUMAN LIGHT ECLIPSING THE LIGHT OF OUR STARS

http://www.readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005d_famous_Blue_Marble_photo_from_Apollo_17.jpgAN EYE-POPPING GLIMPSE OF THE EARTH. Finally, in 1972, Apollo 17 was in position to capture an image of our planet that stretched from North to South Pole. “The Blue Marble,” the popular title for this historic photo, revolutionized our awareness of the planet.JACOB: We have lost the cosmic dimension to our lives. We need to reach out and explore. It’s absolutely essential. You know that in most cities, we can no longer see the stars at night. The light humans make today has eclipsed the light of our stars and—right there—we’ve described the problem we face. Even the light of human reason, which is a wonderful light in itself, has eclipsed the greater questions we need to explore.

I remember going to a big NASA night launch at a time when about a thousand reporters were covering the event. I could hear reporters sounding skeptical as they talked about all the dollars we were spending on this big project, when there were so many other needs in the world.

Right there, across the big lagoon from us, was this rocket about 30 stories high. The lights were shining on it like a massive spiritual symbol. The countdown was going on and I could hear Walter Cronkite’s voice talking about the launch. Everyone was talking around me; people were laughing; the countdown continued. Then we got to 10, 9, 8—and in the final seconds we suddenly saw these huge, brilliant orange flames all around the base of the rocket. So gorgeous! And, I realized that there was not a single sound. You know, at first, the light comes across the lagoon and reaches our eyes before the sound arrives. When the sound came across the lagoon, we felt a rumbling that was the deepest and most beautiful sound any of us had ever heard. It went right through the body. It affected the heart. One would have followed that sound anywhere. This huge skyscraper of a rocket started rising. Our jaws were dropping!

This was a deeply spiritual event. We watched this rocket go up and up. It separated and it turned into what looked like a star. At the same moment, we all were aware that there were human beings, just like us, in the middle of that. Then, the rocket all but disappeared—yet the silence persisted where we stood. People were so touched with wonder at what we had just experienced together that there was little anyone could say. I do recall one of the most cynical reporters simply saying, “I had no idea it was like this.”

That night, people were so touched that they became normal again. Their better natures resurfaced. As they were preparing to leave, people stood quietly, talked softly, helped each other. There was no more wise cracking. People were gentle and civil. If there is a key to world peace, it starts with rediscovering our wonderment.

BLUE MARBLE: BREAKING THROUGH THE BARRIER

DAVID: One experience that everyone in their 40s or older can recall is our first glimpse of “The Blue Marble,” the famous first photo of Earth from outer space that showed the whole planet—pole to pole. That’s one potential asset we share, now, around the world. We are the first generations in world history to have seen our planet from a perspective outside the Earth.

JACOB: The appearance of the Blue Marble photo was such a huge event for most of us. I was younger than I am now, of course, and I can remember my response to it. At that point, we knew the scientific facts. Of course, we knew the world was round. We knew the shape of the continents. But a lot of the facts we know are not processed by the part of ourselves that connects with true meaning. Our standard of knowing is so literal that it precludes us from experiencing that deeper meaning, purpose and value. That’s why I write in this new book that scientism—and again I’m using that “ism” form of the word—can only tell us what is real. It can’t tell us the underlying meaning. That Blue Marble photograph broke through that barrier. I remember seeing it for the first time and it was like an ancient scripture suddenly revealed to the light of day again. People perceived that photo with both heart and mind.

JACOB NEEDELMAN: ‘The Earth is a sacred book.’

DAVID: So now we’re getting at the ultimate message of your new book: The Earth is more than a huge rock circling the sun. The Earth is sacred book in itself. What you you’re describing is not some kind of crazy DaVinci Code or National Treasure kind of conspiracy theory about global secrets. What you’re trying to explain is that science is an important way to “read” the Earth—but it’s a literal reading. We also need a spiritual reading of the Earth.

JACOB: You’re talking about the whole theme of the book. Everything I’ve been trying to understand about myself, to research as a scholar and to share with others is contained in that line: The Earth is a sacred book. When you really feel the deeper meanings of scriptures, you are stunned. You are in awe. You become quiet as this experience rolls through you. That’s what I just described on that night of the NASA launch. The answer to the many challenges we face in the world today is not to pour more agitated religious fervor or political ideology over our problems. Even strict scientism can’t uncover solutions. The answer lies in our search for meaning and the possibility that we just might come together in a community that is more civil and more benevolent because we share a sense of awe. And, in fact, this is an appeal that falls on the ears of so many people, especially young people, who feel this deep hunger for meaning rising within them. They’ve had enough horizontal distractions in our culture. They want vertical ideas—ideas that look toward higher purposes in life. If we could leave readers with one line, it would be: The Earth is a sacred book.

Care to read Part 1 of our coverage of An Unknown World? That first story also contains links to several other related books and ReadTheSpirit stories.

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Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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