Missy Buchanan helps us talk across the generations

Cover Missy Buchanan Voices of Aging

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

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

Click this photo of the author to visit her website.

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.

Comments: (0)
Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

‘Teach Your Children Well …’ Books to help kids fall in love with nature

Covers Just Like Me Climbing a Tree and The Olive Tree and Welcome to the NeighborwoodKIDS love our world—and expect those of us who are adults to take care of the planet until they are old enough to fully enjoy the Earth. One poll after another confirms that truth—and that’s a huge responsibility as Earth Day 2015 rolls around.

As adults who love kids, the first challenge is convincing children to open the door and explore our natural world. A nationwide study of kids by The Nature Conservancy concluded: “There is a growing disparity between the time kids spend indoors wired to technology and the time they spend outside enjoying nature. The vast majority of today’s kids use a computer, watch TV, or play video games on a daily basis, but only about 10 percent say they are spending time outdoors every day. Why? Lack of access to natural areas and discomfort with the outdoors are two primary factors.”

HOW WE’RE HELPING

‘JUST LIKE ME, CLIMBING A TREE’

OUR 1st OF 5 RECOMMENDATIONS—Kids have been climbing trees for thousands of years—so the appeal of Durga Yael Bernhard’s book will be almost universal among the kids you love. It’s also true that trees are endangered ecological engines that continually clean the air we breath, retain soil from erosion and provide all kinds of useful products: fruits, nuts, syrups, oils, wood for building shelters and fibers for a wide array of other materials that make our world a better place to live. But that’s not the primary story this artist and author tells us, as her readers. Oh, you’ll learn a whole lot about the huge range of trees around the world! I have a life-long love for Gingko trees and, in my own lifetime, I have planted a few gingkos in various towns. And, mid-way through this book, I smiled when I met a little Chinese girl high in a majestic Gingko with its fan-shaped leaves. I love olive trees, as well, and we meet a girl high in an olive tree in Israel. The author also tells us more about each kind of tree in the back pages of this large-format picture book—so there is real educational value here. But, as I say, that’s not the main storyline here. This book’s appeal is as simple as our timeless desire to look up into the trees around us—and dream of climbing high into those branches. That’s why Robert Frost’s Birches became an American classic. Before you close this book, you’ll see girls and boys in a dozen countries around the world scrambling into these leafy limbs. This could become a family favorite on your bookshelf. And, Just Like Me, Climbing a Tree: Exploring Trees Around the World is now available from Amazon.

‘THE OLIVE TREE’

THERE is a no more potent tree on Earth than the noble olive. In dozens of languages around the world, an “olive branch” means peace. Olives and olive trees are a part of the scriptures in millions of homes and communities, whether families are reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Bible or the Quran. And, the ownership and treatment of olive trees are matters of deep international concern. Author Elsa Marston understands all of that. She has a life-long fascination with the ancient world as well as the modern Middle East. She knows her history and, in 2013, she released another book that I heartily recommend, The Compassionate Warrior—Abd el-Kader of Algeria, also published by Wisdom Books. Her latest book, a collaboration with illustrator Claire Ewart, is a wonderfully engaging picture book about The Olive Tree. The tree in question has been growing, and producing olives, for more than a century on the property line between two families’ homes in Lebanon. Throughout that long and turbulent history, the families have separated and now they are trying to restore their neighborhood. The trouble is—that olive tree. And, the hope for their future? Yes, it lies in that tree, as well. The Olive Tree is available from Amazon.

‘WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORWOOD’

Honeybee pop up from Shawn Sheehy Welcome to the NeighborwoodYOU won’t believe the wonders inside this picture book! That is, you won’t believe it—unless you’re already an avid collector of contemporary Pop Up books by the likes of master book builder Robert Sabuda. In our family, we’ve been collecting Pop Up books since relatives returned to the U.S. from Japan in the late 1940s and brought back a miraculous Pop Up book that showed the colorful daily life of a typical family in scenes that literally sprang from each opening page. We’ve been hooked on the genre for 60 years, raising kids on the surprises within this picture-book genre. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Shawn Sheehy, but he is following in Sabuda’s path. Sheehy is turning his own his brilliant talents as a paper-and-publishing artist toward the natural world in his various projects. At the moment, his crowning accomplishment is this book. After this, I’m sure there are many wonders yet to come from Sheehy’s studio. I know I’ll be watching for more. No question, if you love Pop Up books and the natural world—grab a copy of this book now. It’s sure to be a classic! And, Welcome to the Neighborwood is available from Amazon.

Want to see for yourself? Click to watch the pages open in this video:

‘EVERYONE PRAYS’

Covers Everyone Prays by Alexis Lumbard and Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth GrahamAS a journalist for U.S. newspapers for 40 years, I specialized in covering issues of global diversity. That’s why, I fell in love with Alexis York Lumbard’s book Everyone Prays the moment I saw it. This book belongs in every home where parents value religious freedom, diversity and the hope that world peace is possible if we focus on what unites us. There are very few words in this gorgeous book—but the words and the colorful scenes chosen by illustrator Alizera Sadeghian convey an entire library of truth about the world’s great faith traditions. I guarantee this: Even the adults who read this book with the kids they love will learn a thing or two about the nature of prayer before they close this picture book. Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World is available from Amazon.

‘NIGHT SKY DRAGONS’

OUR final choice among these five books that will inspire the children you love to open new doors into our world is Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham. This is both a “picture book” and a “story book” that adults will want to read to kids, at first. Eventually, you’ll find, this will become a family favorite and the kids will read it back to you. The story is set centuries ago in the heart of the Silk Road that connected East and West for trade in some of the world’s most valuable commodities. The main characters are a family charged with defending a safe town along that famous route. When a deadly gang of bandits besieges the town, the adults are paralyzed and desperate. That’s when a little boy named Yazul has a brilliant idea to use the kites that he loves to build with his grandfather to peacefully scare away this terrifying force encamped outside the town’s gates. Anyone who has traveled across Asia knows the timeless ritual of greeting the spring with kites. In Western culture, you might fondly recall “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. What this husband-and-wife writing team has achieved in this book, though, transcends those spring rituals and gives our love of kites in the blue spring sky a whole new meaning. There is a much deeper tale here—a message that our love of the seasons and the natural world, coupled with timeless wisdom like the ancient talent of building sophisticated kites—holds the promise of saving our troubled world. And, Night Sky Dragons is available from Amazon, too.

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

Comments: (0)
Categories: Children and FamiliesNatural WorldPeacemakingUncategorized

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

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

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

“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.)

Comments: (2)
Categories: Author InterviewsCaregivingChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Rob Bell and Kristen Bell bring ‘The ZimZum of Love’

Rob Bell in OPRAH magazineROB BELL has reinvented himself yet again, thanks to his new friend Oprah Winfrey. Rob began the year as the subject of a long story in OPRAH magazine, featuring a big photo astride his surfboard looking more like an action-movie star than a pastor. Then, Rob appeared in various Oprah TV shows and public events. He is closing the year by publishing his first book with his wife Kristen Bell, who is emerging as an eloquent, wise and often downright funny co-author.

The OPRAH photo isn’t a fanciful illustration. Rob actually is an avid surfer now and that photo serves as an apt metaphor: Once again, Rob has landed squarely on his feet, surfing deep waters of cultural change.

For those readers who have forgotten the early history of Rob Bell: As a young man, he was restless and even performed, for a while, with a punk-rock band. He studied at the famous evangelical college, Wheaton. He left Wheaton with a classmate (Kristen) at his side and with a desire to bring fresh energy into the Christian pulpit.

After a sojourn at another big church, Rob eventually founded the Mars Hill megachurch in Grand Rapids that, for a time, held the record for weekend attendance among Michigan congregations.

His creativity didn’t stop there. Rob wanted to pioneer new formats for bringing his Christian message to millions of un-churched Americans, so he launched the best-selling video series, Nooma. For several years, “Noomas” became the trendiest multi-media shown in mainline churches nationwide.

Then, Rob began moving with his pulpit! In addition to preaching at Mars Hill, he began touring the world doing long, stand-up performances about Christianity in comedy clubs and theaters.

Eventually, America’s self-appointed evangelical gatekeepers had enough of his inclusive preaching. Various yellow flags were thrown as Rob wrote and preached and toured, including a major controversy over Rob’s suggestion that people who are not Christian may wind up in heaven along with born-again Christians. Evangelicals called, “Foul!” and sought to drum him out of the evangelical camp.

Rob Bell book cover The ZimZum of Love

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

The Bells moved from their home in the conservative-Christian heart of northwest Michigan to southern California where their circle of friends dramatically expanded. With that trans-continental move, they also signaled their decision to step away from the controversy over whether Rob truly is “an evangelical.”

Today? When Rob and Kristen are asked about the evangelical bubble in which they once lived? “We’re really out of that world now,” Rob says. They’re still devoutly Christian; they’ve just left the trenches of what amounts to an evangelical civil war.

What Oprah has given to Rob Bell is confirmation that millions of Americans really do want to hear about the life-affirming joy represented in Christianity’s core teachings. When Rob appears in Oprah’s programs, he is identified as a Christian pastor. He preaches that hope and joy is possible in our lives, today, if we allow faith to lead us into a larger, more compassionate awareness of our world.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Rob and Kristen Bell about their new book on marriage, The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ROB AND KRISTEN BELL
ON ‘ZIMZUM  OF LOVE’

DAVID: As usual, you’re very timely with the subject of this new book. According to Pew, Americans’ attitudes toward marriage are deeply ambivalent, these days. Pew says that the percentage of American adults who’ve never been married has hit an all-time high of 20 percent. Beyond that, half of American adults now say that marriage isn’t necessary to have a happy life.

Even worse from the viewpoint of religious leaders, most Americans don’t look to clergy for advice on marriage. Most Catholics don’t like their church’s policies on divorce and remarriage. Many couples are annoyed that both Protestant and Catholic clergy tend to require marriage counseling before setting a date. The New York Times reports that it’s trendy simply to have a friend perform your wedding with a quickee Internet diploma as a “pastor.” All in all, the church’s relationship to the institution of marriage is pretty troubled right now.

Rob Bell and Kristen Bell on The ZimZum of LoveROB: “The church” is vast and complex. That phrase can mean lots of different things and some churches are better than others in helping people with marriage.

We do have lots of people today who grew up in a culture where there were lots of things called “marriage” that were not beautiful, giving relationships of love. Lots of people grew up in homes where their parents wore rings and seemed to do all the right stuff associated with a marriage—but there was no spirit to the relationship, no flow, no ZimZum to the marriage. If that’s your experience, then marriage isn’t a big deal.

But relationships are a big deal in our lives. Lots of people are looking for guidance in trying to share their lives with someone. And most people understand that they are spiritual beings and there is something spiritual about marriage. That’s what we’re writing about.

KRISTEN: There are so many people who’ve seen what they don’t want in marriage—but that can be a good thing, too. It can lead you to ask: What do I want?

When I was in high school, I read Bill and Lynne Hybels’ book about marriage, Fit to be Tied, and that was very powerful for me because they talk honestly about their struggles. I began to think a lot at that point about what I wanted in marriage and that was good timing for me in those dating years.

Rob and I like to tell the story about the six weeks of pre-marriage counseling we had before we got married. We went to see someone who was about an hour’s drive away. Each time as we made that drive, we would try to come up with all the topics he would ask us about—and then we’d try to talk through everything because we wanted to be the best couple ever. What was interesting about that experience was—it set the tone for our relationship. We decided, right then, that we would be intentional about our marriage.

ZIMZUM OR TZIMTZUM?

DAVID: One thing I like about this new book is that it draws on a very old idea that you’ve borrowed from medieval Jewish mysticism: tzimtzum, or as you spell it zimzum. This is an idea associated with the great mystical teacher Ha’ARI or Isaac Luria, who is one of the major figures associated with Safed in northern Israel. On two trips to Israel, I’ve been able to spend time in Safed and I’m enjoying your very contemporary approach to reviving marriage drawing upon something so steeped in Safed’s mystic traditions.

For the readers of this interview, can you explain a little bit about what you call zimzum?

ROB: For a number of years, I studied and read about the ancient Jewish masters and I stumbled across this concept. I love strange words that unlock a new depth of meaning. And, of course, I realize there is much more to this idea than what we touch upon in our book. It’s a giant idea and many traditions and teachings now stem from this.

DAVID: In the book, you describe it as “a Hebrew word used in the rabbinic tradition to talk about the creation of the world.” You explain that the term describes how God—at the very beginning of the Creation—realized that God needed “to create space that wasn’t God” so that other things could fill the universe and thrive. Sometimes this is called God’s decision to “contract” to make room for creation to thrive independently.

ROB: When I talked to Kristen about this idea, we both had this reaction: God creating space for the creation of the universe sounds like marriage–the way we create space for another person to thrive with us. We create space in our lives for someone we love and they do the same in making space for us.

DAVID: You could have subtitled this book: “A Metaphysics of Marriage.”

ROB: Yeah. And I love that word, too: metaphysics. But if we used that word, a lot of people would keep asking: What are you talking about?! We’re already introducing the unusual term “zimzum.” We’re talking about the space that two people create between them in a marriage. And this space between us has an energetic flow to it. When you first meet someone, you have your own center of gravity—your own dreams and goals. Then, as you fall in love, there is this shift in your life. Your center of gravity expands and you find yourself making space for this other person.

KRISTEN: If you stop and think about the depth of what is happening between you and your spouse, it helps you to appreciate it, to treasure it and to act for each other’s well-being in a new way.

MAKING SACRIFICES IN MARRIAGE

DAVID: Kristen, that touches on another idea in your book that may seem strangely old fashioned in our self-centered culture. You write about the power of making sacrifices in marriage.

KRISTEN: You’ll find that, when you give something to the person you love and it costs you something, it actually brings you great joy. Some people may be experiencing marriage as a constant power struggle, always trying to get out of it what you want. But, we’ve found in our marriage that, when you’re willing to let things go and you have this mutual love—you find that things come back to you.

ROB: What we are describing is someone in a marriage choosing to place the other person’s well-being ahead of your own. When that happens, it can move and inspire us. We’re still telling stories about what firefighters did on 9/11 because their sacrificial actions filled us with hope.

What we’re not talking about in this book is the old suggestion that we have to suffer in marriage. In fact, we’re turning that idea on its head. We’re saying that it can be an exhilarating move toward the other person—if you choose to put their well-being first. If you listen to people talk about their marriages, you realize that the really great marriages involve two people committing themselves to each other. We’re talking about making a conscious decision that you want to do something for the other person.

We want people to pick up the idea that there are a thousand little moves back and forth between us in our relationships, every single day. We want people to be asking: What am I doing today that will help the other person? Can I pick up something on the way home? Can I take the kids for a while so you can do that thing you really want to do? It’s a constant process—a thousand little moves.

ENDLESS MYSTERY OF MARRIAGE

DAVID: Ultimately, you write that a way to test the health of your marriage is to consider: Do you still appreciate that there is a fascinating mystery in the person to whom you’ve committed yourself? Have you turned your partner into an opaque, two-dimensional figure—or can you still appreciate the deeper mystery in your partner? My father recently died in his late 80s and, even in his final year of disability, I was amazed at how eager my parents were to spend each day together. Even in that final year, I could see them discovering new things about each other.

I think that’s one of the best lessons in your book: Rediscover the mystery in your partner.

KRISTEN: One thing that’s happened to me recently is that, with the writing and publication of this book, I’ve joined Rob’s world. Now, I’m part of all of these experiences that he’s been having for some time, but that are new to me.

DAVID: For example …

KRISTEN: Feeling the nerves before an event starts. Or the way you think about an event when it’s over. There are numerous times in recent weeks when I’ve looked at him and said: You’ve felt like this? I have a whole new appreciation for what he has experienced.

ROB: So much of how you understand marriage flows from your understanding of what it means to be human. For a lot of people there isn’t much curiosity about life or about other people. So, if you don’t have much interest in other people, then you can stop trying to learning about the other person in your marriage. You’ll find that people in thriving marriages live with the assumption that this other person in your life is endlessly interesting.

OPRAH AND ‘HELP DESK’

Rob Bell appearing on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network Help Desk show

CLICK on this image to watch two short clips of Rob Bell appearing in Oprah Winfrey’s “Help Desk” TV series.

DAVID: Rob, tell us about your work with Oprah. This year, you appeared as part of her The Life You Want Weekends. You’re among her “Life Trailblazers.” How is this changing your professional role?

ROB: I’m doing what I’ve always done. I’m a pastor. And, I help people see that everything is spiritual. I do my best to let people know: Your life matters. I’m in a new setting and I love it and I get to talk to a lot of people I’ve never talked to before.

KRISTEN: They always introduce him as Pastor Rob Bell. When he speaks, he gets down to real issues. It’s very convicting and pastoral. He states the truth and he invites people to make a shift in their hearts. And then at the end he does a benediction. I agree that it’s definitely the same trajectory he’s always been on. Rob has always had a passion for communicating. And his intention has always been to help people connect with God, to remove barriers people might have. He just keeps giving and it’s really fun to see him on that bigger stage, now.

DAVID: So, let me ask you the question I’ve asked you in our many interviews over the years: Should you still be described as “evangelical”? For a while, some of your critics wanted to debate you and eventually wanted to kick you out of the evangelical camp for some of your more inclusive teaching.

ROB: I don’t follow all of that anymore. We’re really out of that world now. I would say, if “evangelical” means hope in this buoyant announcement that we all, together, can do something about the problems in this world because there has been a Resurrection—then, yes, absolutely. But if “evangelical” means a particular sub-culture that has no larger cultural relevance anymore—because it’s focused on fear—then, no, that has no interest for me anymore. If you use “evangelical” in its original meaning—proclaiming good news—then, yes.

DAVID: OK, so a good example of taking good news into the public square is your appearance on Oprah’s Help Desk series. Clips from that episode are all over the Internet. You’re good at it. We’re going to show our readers a couple of examples from that show.

Then, let me close our conversation today by asking: What do you hope readers will do with your new book?

ROB: We hope that people will see they have tremendous power to change their relationships. In a marriage, you have way more power to affect the space between you than you may think. We hope it’s empowering and illuminating. And secondly we don’t want anyone just to settle. If you’re going to spend your life with someone—don’t settle. Marriage should be great.

KRISTEN: We hope that people will rediscover the mystery in their marriages—so that their marriages will bring them great joy.

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

Comments: (0)
Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesGreat With Groups

The David Gushee Interview on ‘Changing Our Mind’

David P Gushee Changing Our Mind front cover

CLICK THE COVER to visit our Bookstore, learn more about the book and order a copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other retailers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gushee author photo

David P. Gushee

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

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

CHRISTIANS ON A JOURNEY

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

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

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

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

AN EMERGING JUSTICE ISSUE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DISCERNMENT TAKES TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A HUMBLE APOLOGY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments: (3)
Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

Why David P. Gushee represents hope for the Church

By KEN WILSON
author of A Letter To My Congregation

A Letter to My Congregation cover with Ken Wilson

Click the image to learn more about Ken Wilson and his book, which includes an opening written by David P. Gushee.

David Gushee is arguably the preeminent Evangelical ethicist of our time. Until this book, that is, which is more than a book. It is an event and it is one that will propel Gushee outside the camp of approved Evangelical scholars.

But this is where Jesus did his best work. It is the place where the gospel first happened for all people. Gushee’s book will draw many Evangelicals to find Jesus outside the camp with his vulnerable gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender followers, those who have suffered in exile for a very long time.

The thing you will notice in Changing Our Mind, beyond the faithful scholarship, is Gushee’s voice. Words do matter and the thoughts they convey. But the good shepherd is known primarily by his voice. Gushee’s voice is by turns warm, pastoral, prophetic, irenic, careful, authoritative, humble, sorrowful, repentant and even occasionally funny.

Gushee’s new book is a great read.

But his mission is deadly serious. Gushee is out to save the lives of people living with the stigma of sexual minority status. And he is out to save the soul of the Evangelical church, so that it can be good news for all people again.

I met David at a retreat sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals in 2006. Five years later, I was on a writing retreat—gathering my troubled and troubling thoughts on a way to fully include people in same-sex relationships in the church. I had just finished reading Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics and found the few pages on homosexuality wanting. Those pages didn’t live up to the approach to ethics that Gushee and his co-author presented in the book. With trepidation (Who was I to criticize Gushee in his own field?) I told him so. And to my surprise, he responded with what I now know to be characteristic humility.

He said, “I’m rethinking that section too.”

That’s when I knew that evangelicals are able to—and will—change their minds on this issue for the sake of the gospel. That’s when I felt hope for the evangelical church—that guided by our passion for the gospel, we could find a better way. Today I am aware of several evangelical churches in the dicey, messy, difficult process of changing their minds on this issue.

When I telephoned Gushee that day, I couldn’t imagine such a thing. When I hung up the phone, I could.

So read this book—but only if you are willing to venture outside the camp of modern-day evangelicalism for the sake of the gospel. There you will enjoy sweet fellowship with Jesus that is available nowhere else. And you will discover again the thrill inherent in the goodness, the sheer, stupefying goodness of the gospel for all people.

Comments: (0)
Categories: Children and FamiliesChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

Miller Elementary School builds a ‘Fence of Friends’

Teacher Krista Jewett and Principal Aimee Bell at Miller school lead an anti-bullying assembly

USING VISUAL AIDS TO PREVENT BULLYING: At a Miller Elementary School assembly, teacher Krista Jewett (left in gray sweater) and principal Aimee Bell (at right) work with groups of children to discuss the best responses when bullying arises.

Hundreds of children agree:
Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

By DAVID CRUMM, Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“I was lonely, when I first came to Miller as a teacher. I didn’t know anyone! I was new here. I didn’t have any friends,” music teacher Mary Manier told hundreds of children in two assemblies at Miller Elementary School in Canton, Michigan. Behind her was a huge screen displaying the simple outline of a picket fence. Inside that outline were sketches of smiling people holding hands.

Miller teacher Mary Manier shows how to form a Fence of Friends

‘FENCE OF FRIENDS’ BEFORE & AFTER: In this photo, Miller Elementary music teacher Mary Manier talks about arriving at the school and meeting her first new friend. In the photo below, Mary Manier’s story ends with a long ‘Fence of Friends.’ (Photographs by Becky Hile for www.ReadTheSpirit.com)

“But do you know what happened on my first day? Someone greeted me and that made me feel a lot better,” Mary Manier said, inviting that first friendly teacher to walk to the front of the assembly, stand beside her and link arms to show their friendship. Then, Manier recalled a series of simple, kind actions by other teachers—and invited them to stand side by side. Soon, teachers had formed a long “Fence of Friends.”

Then, Manier turned to the hundreds of children sitting in rows on the gymnasium floor. “You all have people who care about you, too. You all have friends. Who is in your Fence of Friends?”

The school is racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, posing an ongoing cross-cultural challenge to the school staff. This year, the entire school—children, teachers, office staff and even janitors—are helping the children to understand how to build safe relationships at Miller. A school-wide survey of students alerted the staff that some children were anxious about the possibility of bullying. No major incidents have surfaced, but Principal Aimee Bell and her colleagues want to be proactive.

In early October, Bell, Manier and 4th grade teacher Krista Jewett invited me, as the head of ReadTheSpirit Books, to brainstorm ideas for engaging children in the effort. ReadTheSpirit publishes two helpful books: Michigan State University’s The New Bullying (for parents and teachers) and also Bullying Is No Laughing Matter (for adults to use with kids).

Miller teacher Mary Manier completes her Fence of FriendsThe Miller team especially liked the “Fence of Friends” activity, based on the Dennis the Menace comic strip. That activity guide is one of many that we provide in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter website.

Last week, Miller held two assemblies, separating the students by age. The assembly for older students was longer and involved more talks by teachers, student skits produced by Krista Jewett’s students and brief videos on the big screen. The assembly for younger kids was geared for a shorter attention span. The high point for both groups was Mary Manier—with help from the school’s faculty—demonstrating the Fence of Friends.

“In the next week or so, you’re all going to get a chance to draw your own Fence of Friends,” Aimee Bell told the students.

The staff has duplicated hundreds of fence outlines on 8-by-11 paper, awaiting these student drawings. Teachers know that some students immediately will fill their fences with sketches of friends. Other children will sit quietly with a nearly empty fence. That’s when teachers will encourage students to look at the drawings that are emerging around the classroom—and students will be invited to “draw themselves in” to those fences that are still quite empty. In doing so, children commit themselves to being good friends for others throughout the school year.

During the assembly, Aimee Bell and Krista Jewett often turned the microphone to the children to get their responses. They asked: “Why is this so important?”

A boy named James said, “If somebody wants to bully you—you have someone to guard you.”

A girl named Julia said, “You know someone will stand by your side—they’re part of your fence.”

Through their short talks, student skits and short videos, the Miller staff stressed the nationally accepted definition of bullying (that definition is included in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter book), then they demonstrated several strategies kids can use for quickly responding, and also they emphasized the need to alert adults if bullying persists.

Aimee Bell closed the assemblies by encouraging the students: “We’re going to talk a lot about how to respond to bullying this year. Now, we all know what bullying is—and we all know what to do when we see it.”

As children make their own Fence of Friends drawings in coming weeks, Miller teachers plan to post those drawings side-by-side to form a very long Fence of Friends around the walls of the school.

Comments: (0)
Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups