In ‘From Dry Bones to Living Hope,’ Missy Buchanan brings spiritual solace to families as we age

Clicking on this top photo will take you to Missy Buchanan’s Facebook page called “Aging and Faith.” She is active on that Facebook page every day and likes to post inspirational texts, images and stories that might brighten your day—and that you can easily share with your own friends and family.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

Missy Buchanan knows that many of the people who purchase her books aren’t the ones who ultimately read them. Frequently, men and women buy her books for older friends and loved ones—often because those older folks already love Missy’s writing and are eager to get her latest book.

In other words: Missy’s new book, From Dry Bones to Living Hope might make a perfect gift for an older person on your holiday gift list—perhaps someone who is otherwise hard to shop for. The paperback edition of her book is printed in “enlarged type,” so it’s easy for everyone to read, even people with visual challenges. And, her book also is available via Kindle from Amazon, because lots of older men and women enjoy reading on Kindles (or other tablet-style devices) that are easy to hold, to transport and to adjust to various type sizes.

Depending on your own age, and the ages of your friends and family members, you may recognize Missy as the nation’s leading author specializing in bringing spiritual solace to men and women who are in their mid-70s or older.

Yes, that’s a very specific niche within the genre of inspirational writing. It’s an audience that Missy understands from her many years of work as an educator, a small-group teacher for older adults and as a speaker at countless events, classes, retreats and conferences.

That national reputation is why, a decade ago, Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts recruited Missy to help her elderly mother Lucimarian Roberts write her own memoir. Roberts contacted Missy because she learned that Missy was her mother’s favorite author. Lucimarian kept a well-read copy of one of Missy’s inspirational readers in her bedroom. The result of this collaboration was the best-selling My Story, My Song, Lucimarian’s autobiography “as told to Missy Buchanan.”

(Back in 2012, ReadTheSpirit published a story about that project, based on a heart-felt column Missy wrote after the book was published and she learned that Lucimarian had passed away.)

“I’m in a niche where the people I’m writing for—my main readers—often are receiving my books from adult children, a friend, a caregiver or someone at church,” Missy said. “Once they find my books, they connect with the honest voice I use when I’m writing—and they sometimes will read my books over and over again. I remember hearing from a daughter that she didn’t like my books, then two weeks later I got a letter from her mother—who actually read the book—saying, ‘Finally! Someone understands what I’m going through.'”

“These older readers understand what I’m writing about and they love my books—but many of these men and women in their 80s and 90s don’t have active Amazon accounts themselves,” Missy said. “So, they often are getting my books from their adult children, their church or their younger friends. It is a little bit of a challenge for me as a writer that a lot of my books aren’t bought by my readers—they’re bought for my readers by someone else.”

In fact, that situation can lead to some occasional misunderstandings. From the debut of her very first book in 2008, some younger adults are unsettled by her writing.

Missy told me, “I’ve even heard from some younger adults who tell me, ‘Your books are depressing!’ But,  they’re not depressing for the people who I’m writing for. I’ve found that my readers—people who are in their 70s, 80s and 90s—are completely honest about the hard challenges of aging. It’s usually their adult children who are more nervous about honestly discussing these issues. I’ve learned that from the very first book I published.”

That first book in 2008 was titled, Living with Purpose in a Worn-out Body: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults.

As editor of this online magazine, I have to admit that my own first reaction to Missy’s title was: That’s depressing! When I interviewed Missy the very first time about that book, I was honest in admitting my reaction. I told her, “Stop and think about this for a moment: Who would buy a gift for an older friend or loved one with a title that says the person has a Worn-out Body?

She laughed at my reaction. In fact, her book already was flying off bookstore shelves. In fact, that very first book was Lucimarian’s favorite and led to Missy’s work on Lucimarian’s best-selling memoir.

Over the years, I have chuckled with Missy about that initial reaction—and how wrong I was. Missy has proven that she has a pitch-perfect genius for wording her inspirational stories and her spiritual advice so that they directly connect with her target audience. At this point, she has thousands of loyal readers waiting for her next new book—although they sometimes do rely on younger family members or friends to actually purchase these new books for them.

What’s in Missy Buchanan’s new book?

In 144 pages, Missy gives us 21 chapters with titles, such as: Life in the Valley of Dry Bones, When Praise Will Not Come, Digital Divide, The Path to Purpose, Persistently Patient, Divine Interruptions and Standing on the Promises.

Each chapter begins with a brief Bible passage, ranging from Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah and of course Ezekiel’s story of dry bones springing to life—to the New Testament’s I Corinthians and Philippians. Then, after the short scripture, there is a “prayerful lament,” describing common challenges as we age. Readers who are familiar with Psalms will recognize many of these “laments” as contemporary Psalms, calling out to God for help. Throughout her body of work, Missy clearly loves Psalms. She even devotes one entire chapter in this new book to wisdom from the life of David, who is credited as the author of many Psalms.

“The fact that there is a lament in each chapter goes back to what we were talking about earlier,” Missy said. “My goal always is honesty about what older adults are going through. One of the things I hear from older people wherever I go is: ‘Don’t sugar coat it! If you do sugar coat it, we wont believe you.’ But, I don’t stop with the lament. After expressing honestly those feelings on our hearts, then we must ask: What are we going to do about that today? Those action steps are hugely important.”

Missy’s ultimate destination in each chapter is the third section, which she calls “Cultivating Hope.” These are very practical ideas for spiritual reflection, including many pages where readers may want to jot down their responses to her questions.

“Upper Room should sell a pen along with your book,” I told Missy. “Readers will need a pen or perhaps a pencil to jot down their thoughts.”

“Oh, yes, we hope people will write in this book,” she said. “Got to have a pen or pencil handy when you’re reading this book!”

Of course, that also means Missy’s new book is essentially a self-contained study guide that’s perfect for individual reflection, small-group discussions, men’s or women’s circles in congregations or Sunday School classes.

And one important note for our magazine’s readers who are not Christian: Missy herself is Christian and this new book does draw occasionally on inspirational passages from the Christian New Testament. But Missy also is a nondenominational writer and the majority of her chapters spring from “Abrahamic” roots, drawing heavily from Hebrew scriptures (the Christian Old Testament). Plus, her preferred style of addressing God is simply as “God”—so that her loyal audience already extends far behind specifically Christian readers.

Missy Buchanan’s Practical Spiritual Advice

Missy’s new book springs from the inspiration of Ezekiel, Chapter 37, the famous Bible passage in which God’s spirit moves through dry bones and brings them to new life. It’s a dramatic and very concrete image that has inspired many writers and artists down through the centuries, including the great hymn writer James Weldon Johnson, who composed the spiritual Dem Bones and first recorded it with Jubilee Singers in 1928.

The advice in Missy’s Cultivating Hope sections is similarly concrete. Her questions are direct and varied. In a single paragraph, she might suggest four or five ideas to light up your day. Reading her book reminded me immediately of Ken Whitt’s God Is Just Love, written for multi-generational families and spilling over with so many practical ideas that Ken closes with a section called, “100 Things Families Can Do to Find Hope and Be Love.” This style of writing turns these books into spiritual toolboxes!

“Missy, I’ve got to credit you with some ideas in this book that I’ve never heard before—and that’s really saying something because I’ve been looking at new inspirational books for decades, now,” I told her in our interview. “My favorite new idea in your book is: Praying during the commercial breaks in TV shows. I love it! Great spiritual leaders have recommended fixed-hour prayer for thousands of years. But, now you’ve added a truly new twist! Mute the TV during commercial breaks and pray for several minutes.”

Missy laughed. “Well, I’ve got to tell you that idea comes from the fact that I see sooo many older people who spend their days sitting in a chair with the TV going. They may have the remote right there, so they could turn off that TV and do something else, but a lot of them never touch the remote. A major first step to help a lot of these men and women is to get them to turn off that TV and do something else. So, I thought: Hmmm, a first step just might be asking them to grab that remote, mute the commercials and spend that time in prayer.”

She chuckled again. “I mean, it may sound like a crazy idea for prayer, but if you think about it—getting away from that TV is the real goal.”

“What makes you keep writing these books?” I asked her as we closed our interview. “What do you hope your writing accomplishes in the world?”

“I want to be a companion to my readers,” she said. “One of the sweetest photos I ever was sent came from a woman whose mother had died. When she went in to take care of her mother’s things, after the funeral, she looked at the stack of books on her mother’s nightstand. Several of my books were there with bookmarks sticking out of them at various pages she loved. It was obvious her mother had read these books many times. In her note with the photo the woman wrote one of the best things I could have received. She wrote: ‘Mom almost wore out our books!’ ”

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Care to Read More?

ReadTheSpirit has been recommending Missy’s books for many years. 

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

Missy also wrote the Foreword for our own 2021 book, Now What? A Guide to the Gifts and Challenges of Aging.

In that Foreword, she wrote in part: “It is true that every person’s journey of aging is unique. That’s why this book offers such a vast array of information on the most vital topics of aging. Drawing on the expertise and experiences of professionals involved in eldercare, this book will truly guide families through the uneven landscape of late life—and will point readers toward helpful answers for the question we all share, at some point in life: Now what?”

In ‘How to Be,’ a Monk and a Journalist Reflect on Living & Dying, Purpose & Prayer, Forgiveness & Friendship

First, meet the co-authors of these remarkable letters

JUDITH VALENTE is a long-time friend of ReadTheSpirit magazine and her work has been featured dozens of times in our pages since our founding in 2007—including this column she wrote for us about her earlier, related book How to Live. She is one of the nation’s top journalists writing about religion for media venues that have ranged from major newspapers to the PBS network to public radio.

BROTHER PAUL QUENON is best known as a poet. He entered the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, part of the Cistercian order, in Kentucky in 1958 when Thomas Merton was the novice master. Later, Merton served as Brother Paul’s spiritual director and encouraged him to publish his writings. Among Brother Paul’s earlier books is The Art of Pausing, which he co-authored with Judith. You may have seen him in documentaries or media reports over the years.

IN THIS SHORT YouTube CLIP, they talk about their letter writing, which forms the basis of this new book.

Then, Enjoy this Foreword to the book by Kathleen Norris

KATHLEEN NORRIS is  famous for her own books exploring spirituality, including The Cloister Walk (1996), Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998) and Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life (2008). She wrote the following Foreword for this new book.

This book of correspondence is a refreshment, a reminder that although “interconnectivity” has become a buzzword, and technology allows us to contact one another in a dazzling variety of new ways, something vital is missing. Emails travel around the world in seconds, but in gaining efficiency and speed, we risk losing the ability to listen. We long for deeper communication with others, and this book shows us one way to find it.

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

How to Be introduces us to Judith Valente, a married woman, a journalist and retreat leader with a hectic schedule, and Brother Paul Quenon, a celibate and a contemplative Cistercian monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani. We all benefit from the decision they made to deepen their relationship by means of letters. Brother Paul’s helpful comment about the difference between an email message and correspondence is borne out in etymology. The word “message” is related to “mission” and implies using words to advance an agenda. The word “correspondence,” by comparison, is derived from “engagement,” suggesting something deeper, a pledge to be open and honest with another person. In corresponding with a friend, we have no agenda other than fostering friendship.

That’s intriguing, but the reader might wonder about the value of paying attention to the ramblings of two people, as interesting as they are. Reading their letters could seem as meaningless as hearing another person’s dreams. But the subjects these two touch on are universal. We all deal with illness and death, grief and loss, work, play, and the use of our time, and the musings in these letters can help us determine our own path through the glorious mess called life.

Like Judith, most of us know what it’s like to be so consumed by work that we lose sleep over it. We fret over being so overloaded and distracted that at the end of the day we feel it’s all been wasted time. But few of us hear the wisdom of Brother Paul’s responses to her lament: that a good way to get over the feeling that you’re wasting your time is to waste more of it. He suggests that she intentionally slow down and look around her to see what’s really there. How liberating to embrace his Zen-like wisdom, that the purpose of life is that it doesn’t need a purpose: the purpose of life is life.

It’s good to hear two thoughtful people reflecting on their lived experience. Judith, a self-described “over-achiever,” is often anxious and Paul is more calm, reflecting on the fruits of a monastic life structured so as to foster contemplation. Both are modern people, well aware of the uneasiness that pervades our culture. But Paul reminds us that it’s all right to admit that we don’t always know what to hope for. If we don’t understand what’s happening to and around us, maybe that’s how God wants it. Citing a comment by his mentor Thomas Merton that Jesus will always seek out the most lowly crib, he adds that the holy is often found in places we are most reluctant to look.

Many of us can identify with Judith’s difficulty in devoting time to pray, let alone praying attentively, and with Brother Paul’s admission that he tends to fall asleep when he’s meditating. Fortunately their views on spirituality and religion are not sectarian, and both reflect on experiences with people of other faiths. Paul offers an indelible image of Buddhist monks playing soccer with children outside Merton’s hermitage; Judith discusses her study of meditation with a Tibetan Lama. As Christians, both ponder their experience of receiving the eucharist at Mass. Judith speaks of the wonder of carrying the body of Christ within her; Paul says it makes him realize that every Christian is a reincarnation of Christ.

One thing that connects these two disparate people is poetry, and it’s delightful to see the way they share their own poems as well as the work of others who have inspired them: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and a contemporary, Mary Oliver. Poets do not shy away from difficult subjects, and the reflections on suffering and death in these letters have been especially helpful to me. Judith recalls that a man she’d interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article told her, as he neared death, that “the line between life and death is thinner than you think.” A Benedictine monastery is a thin place by design, as each monk lives with Benedict’s admonition in his Rule for monks, to “keep death daily before your eyes.”

Judith says she’s always struggled with the Christian notion of death as being “born to eternal life, as lovely as that sounds.” And Paul admits that he rarely thinks about heaven, but finds “much of the Resurrection in our love of the world and of the beauty that nature presents. In loving nature, in loving the world, we love something larger than ourselves, and we are made larger by that loving.”

This book is a generous invitation to a conversation, a word with special meaning for Benedictines. One of the vows they make is to conversatio morum, loosely translated as “conversation of life.” The word “conversation” is rooted in a word meaning to turn, to change, to be versatile rather than rigid. And the joy of conversation in that sense enriches these letters. In discussing the effect of the pandemic, for example, Judith says that the enforced isolation made her deeply grateful to see her mail carrier every day, and allowed her to engage in cooking as a meditative practice. Paul reminds us that “love starts at home,” and with people spending more time with their families the pandemic might be seen as a challenge to develop more compassion and empathy.

This book has given me a challenge: I now want to think of someone, a friend living close by or far away, who would be willing to engage in the kind of meandering but deeply meaningful correspondence contained in this book.

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In her new ‘Until Now,’ Carrie Newcomer calls all of us to sing for our lives and our communities

Click the cover to visit the Amazon page for Carrie Newcomer’s new CD, Until Now. The page also lists streaming and MP3 options. Amazon also sells Carrie’s new book of poetry that expands on themes in this new album.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

What does a folksinger do without folks?

Our last ReadTheSpirit cover story featuring Carrie Newcomer was published on March 9, 2019, one year before the COVID pandemic in the United States led to social-distancing nationwide. This week, I had a chance to ask Carrie about the toll of the pandemic on her career as a performer. For many years, her life has been defined by tireless touring across North America and occasionally around the world.

So, my first question was: “What does a folksinger do without folks?”

“As happened to all of us, the regular patterns of my life completely altered. My last in-person tour happened in early March of 2020,” Carrie said in our interview. “Finally, just two weeks ago, I went out on my first in-person tour since that time. That’s a very long time to be home. Within a month of the COVID lockdown, I was spending more time at home than I had for 25 years! So the patterns of my life and the rituals of my work completely altered at the drop of a hat—like a sudden: Now, it all ends.”

While some of Carrie’s life-long habits ended for a time—new creative realms opened.

“I was very fortunate that I became involved with the start of the concert-streaming company Mandolin,” she said. Her husband Robert Meitus is a musician and a prominent entertainment-industry attorney who, during the pandemic, also was co-founding Mandolin. If you care to learn more, here is Mandolin’s own brief history.

“Because I was a sort-of resident artist as Mandolin was growing so rapidly, I wound up testing a lot of the new things they were adding to the service,” Carrie said. The company’s home base is in Indianapolis, not far from Carrie’s and Robert’s home in Bloomington. “So, I spent a lot of time with Mandolin, especially in the early days.” And, over the past year, Mandolin has turned into a meteoric success story. In June 2021, the annual music-industry awards given by Pollstar magazine honored Mandolin as the best streaming platform, as reported in Variety. Mandolin’s current concert lineup is featured here, and Carrie’s own artist’s page within that larger website lists her upcoming events.

“So, because of my connection with Mandolin, I was able to do some online concerts and workshops and that was very helpful—although it is a very different animal.”

COVID and ‘The Great Unraveling’

“A very different animal.”

The cultural, public-health, political, racial and spiritual upheavals of the pandemic have blown apart countless communities around the world. In Carrie’s new album and accompanying book of poetry—both of them titled simply Until Now—she never uses the word “COVID” or the term “pandemic.” She refers to this time of upheaval in the opening lines of her first new song as “the great unraveling.”

And what’s the good news here? Fans of Carrie’s work over the years will know that she always brings good news with the bad. The good news here is that she turns “the great unraveling” into an anthem calling on everyone to join in an effort to rebuild our world.

The opening lines of that first song are:

Here in the great unraveling,
So much of this is baffling.
When breathing feels like gambling,
Nowhere to go but here.
Things come together then fall apart.
We gather up our broken hearts,
And endings are just a place to start,
And so we start again.

We’re gonna climb this ladder rung by rung.
We’re gonna count our blessings one by one.
It’s gonna take a little grace and luck,
‘Cause baby it’s a long way up,
Baby it’s a long way up. 

“You’ve turned this into a kind of anthem,” I told Carrie. “In the chorus, when you call us to ‘climb this ladder rung by rung,’ it’s really stirring! What makes you so hopeful?”

“In a time of great unraveling, there is also a great opportunity,” she said. “As we put the pieces back together again, we can choose how we do that. We can choose how to weave our threads back together again, hopefully with a little greater awareness of where the fabric had always been a little weak.

“I understand that the pandemic is not over. I understand that we are all in a time of great suffering. I lost family members to this. I understand the pain,” she continued. “But at the same time, this is an opportunity. I do a lot of work with Parker Palmer and he talks about the possibilities when our hearts break. He says that, when our hearts break, they can shatter and wind up going in every direction like shrapnel. But there is another possibility. Our hearts can break open and, in the process, can become more open to the world. I hope that this can be a time when our hearts break open so that we are receptive in new ways.”

‘You’re just like Molly Brown’

Click on this photo of Carrie Newcomer to visit her own website, which is full of fascinating resources.

Carrie’s interplay with Parker Palmer shapes a lot of her work. In the new album, one of Parker’s casual texts to Carrie wound up inspiring an entire song about resiliency. They were sharing updates about Carrie’s work on creating new options for online streaming of high-quality music. She was texting him about the potential of online streaming.

Parker texted back: “You’re just like Molly Brown. You just keep rowing.” Molly Brown was the famous passenger on the Titanic who helped other passengers board lifeboats, eventually took an oar herself and, after she returned home, helped to raise funds for families devastated by the sinking.

“So, that text from Palmer was in my mind when I went for a long walk and I started singing about her—until that song became an homage to women who have rolled up their sleeves and who showed us the power of resilience,” Carrie said.

Between the song’s four stanzas, she breaks into a refrain that sounds like a full-force, revival-tent call to spiritual resilience. Here is the opening stanza and refrain:

I’m gonna row my boat like Molly Brown,
Picking up an oar, when the ship went down.
When she made it home, Molly kissed the ground,
I’m gonna row my boat like Molly Brown.

Pull and rest, pull and rest.
Do your best, not more or less.
Rest and pull, pull and try.
Keep asking why
‘Til we all meet on the other side.

Throughout Carrie’s new album and book of poetry, she celebrates the power of song—calling all of us to put our oars into the choral waters and row together.

Singing for our lives and communities

At ReadTheSpirit, we certainly are a part of that chorus. In fact, our publishing house has a number of books that celebrate the joys of singing. There’s an entire chapter about the importance of singing in Benjamin Pratt’s book, A Guide for CaregiversHere is how Benjamin describes the power of song in the opening of his chapter:

Music and singing have amazing restorative power in our lives. Like theater and art, music sends us soaring into new realms of the spirit while we are still grounded in our daily lives. When our daily lives are weighed down by onerous, exhausting tasks, music and dance can restore—even heal—something deep in our soul.

Throughout her career, Carrie has preached the same message. In her new book of poetry that accompanies the Until Now album, she writes an entire ode to singing. It begins this way:

Songs were never meant to be left
To “the professionals.”
Never mind the person who long ago shamed you
Or the church choir member who told you to
Just mouth the words.
Don’t worry if your i’s are dotted
And your t’s are crossed,
Or your pitches are perfectly placed.
Trust me,
If you spend today singing,
If you start by
Humming in the shower,
Then whistling while picking out carrots,
Or singing as you wash dishes,
Or walk in the woods,
Or cross at the traffic light,
You might just begin to feel
Your True Heart
Open.

And there’s that theme, often shared by Carrie and Parker Palmer, popping up again: When our hearts break, one new possibility is that, by breaking open, we may welcome the world around us in new ways.

“There are so many things happening in our world right now in such a small window of time,” Carrie said. “Beyond the pandemic, we are in a time of political upheaval, climate change and we are in the midst of a great racial reckoning, which is long in coming and has been long needed. That means: There are so many possibilities of what we might do next!

“Yes, there is pain. Yes, there is tragedy. But, if we stand back and think about it, life is like a great big ocean-going ship and it’s hard to shift the direction of that ship unless something big happens—and right now there are a lot of big things happening. This is an opportunity for all of us to shift our ship’s direction. Right now, while the pandemic continues, I hope that we can do the inner work that will inform and transform our outer work in the world. I hope that we can shift as communities and as a country and all around the world. As I say this, I think about lines in one of my new songs, When the Wolf Is at the Door.”

Part of the song goes like this:

When the old world ends,
A new world starts.
What finally comes together
First had to fall apart.
I’ve been seeing things I thought I’d never see,
There once were four, but now there’s three.
Change comes slouching in, unnamed and unforeseen,
With a quiet voice or on soundless wings.
There’s a storm like I’ve never seen before,
Rumbling like a train, coming up through the floor.
We can’t just be healed, we must be transformed.
When the sky goes dark, and the wolf is at the door. 

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Care to learn more?

GET THE NEW ALBUM and PAPERBACK. Amazon and other online retailers sell both Carrie Newcomer’s newest music—as well as her paperback book of poetry.

VISIT CARRIE’S HOME ONLINE. You’ll find lots more information and inspiring resources at www.CarrieNewcomer.com

ENJOY CARRIE’S PODCASTS WITH PARKER PALMER. They call their ongoing work together on this podcast The Growing Edge. “Parker Palmer and I started doing creative projects together for more than 15 years ago,” Carrie explains. “We’ve done a couple of spoken-word-and-music programs together. We’ve written and produced a song together. And we’ve created this monthly podcast that people can find wherever they like to get their podcasts. Before COVID, we were doing in-person retreats together on the topic: Where is your growing edge? The podcasts explore the inner work and the outer work that can happen when we step up to our growing edges. We’ve had some wonderful guests on our programs and I’m very grateful that we were able to continue doing these podcasts throughout the pandemic. If you enjoy the podcasts, you will find that some of the songs on the new album relate to those conversations.”

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Major General James Dozier, 40 years after his kidnapping, writes about ‘Finding My Pole Star’

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

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What does courage look like?

Dozier writes about the spiritual core that helped him withstand captivity

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Major General James Dozier when he was freed from captivity.

Repeatedly over the past month—in the wake of the exodus from Afghanistan, a resurgence of COVID and tragic storms across the U.S.—I have heard people raise the question: What does courage look like?

That question was raised again this week by author Larry Buxton in his Leading with Spirit video, where he explains that this is a question frequently asked by “supervisors, spouses, pastors, parents, managers and bosses.” In the daily stress of our turbulent times, Buxton says that all of us want to know: “What can we do to be more courageous in our lives and in the roles we play everyday?”

Those questions are answered with inspiring true stories in the new memoir by retired Major General James Dozier, Finding My Pole Star. Forty years ago, in late 1981, Dozier’s name and photographs circled the globe as he became the public face of European terrorist groups’ rage about America’s global power.

Dozier’s book begins with a scene that takes us right back to those suspenseful weeks in 1981. A terrorist group called The Red Brigades shocked the world by overpowering him and his wife in their apartment in Italy. At the time, he was the deputy Chief of Staff for NATO’s Southern European land forces—the highest-ranking American ever to have been captured in such a terrorist raid.

Chapter 1, called Ride of Terror and Beginnings, starts with this scene:

The Fiat hatchback made its way through the early evening, transporting me from Verona, Italy, to an unknown destination and to an equally unknown future. I was in the back, jammed into a steamer trunk, lying on my left side, knees to my chest, handcuffed with my hands behind my back. Each time I moved to make myself a little more comfortable, the handcuffs would tighten.

So, what does courage look like?

In reading Dozier’s new memoir, you will find out that it looks a lot like the values millions of us learn from our families, from our teachers (in Dozier’s case at West Point), from weekly attendance at our houses of worship and from public-service organizations such as Rotary International, where Dozier is an active member. While that may sound like an anti-climactic answer to the question of courage, Dozier weaves together the significance of all these everyday lessons into the rock-solid wisdom—the pole star—that led him to take a daring and ultimately successful approach toward his kidnappers.

Fortunately for all of us, he lived to tell this remarkable story.

What’s Your Life’s Calling?

For thousands of years, a pole star has been a key to celestial navigation. For Dozier, finding one’s own spiritual pole star is the quest of a lifetime.

“I start with the firm belief that all of us who live on this earth are here to serve some purpose. God put us here for a reason,” Dozier, 90, said in an interview about his new book and his hope that it may inspire readers, especially the young people he works in Florida JROTC programs, near he lives.

He continued, “Then, if we believe there is a reason we’re here, it becomes our life’s work to figure out what that reason is—and to pursue that purpose with all our energy, even though it might take years to identify that purpose. We have to search for it. And we have to do that to the absolute best of our ability.”

Like most of the world’s great quest stories, one’s personal vocation—one’s pole star—is not always easy for a person to discern. This truth is echoed in another memoir of a famous West Point graduate, retired Col. Cliff Worthy, whose story of emerging as one of West Point’s first Black graduates is told in The Black Knight.

“Yes, I think this was true for both Cliff and myself—our ultimate purpose wasn’t obvious to us for years,” Dozier said in our interview. “You might think that a military career was always my career goal from the very start of my life—but, like Cliff, my life unfolded as the result of many fits and starts. Like Cliff, friends and mentor were vitally important to me all the way along this journey.”

Why is this such an important point?

Because many young Americans don’t develop a sense of vocation, researchers tell us. A sense of vocation can transform our lives, give us purpose and even help us to stay healthier longer in life, research shows. One particular group of men and women struggling with that challenge today are veterans who are trying to transition out of military service, writes military sociologist and Florida Gulf Coast University professor Christine Wright-Isak in her endorsement of Dozier’s new book.

“In my ten years of assisting young U.S. combat veterans from the 21st century Middle Eastern conflicts, I have learned from them the critical importance of their developing a personally important vision for their lives as they returned. Therefore, it is very important that the latest generation of Americans have the chance to hear this story,” she writes.

While held in captivity, Dozier was forced to participate in Red Brigades publicity, including this photograph that was widely circulated to news organizations as the Brigades prepared to cast him in a show trial about American imperialism.

Dozier on the Importance of Truth

One of the earliest values Dozier learned from his family and his church was truth—a value that he immediately recognized and embraced when he learned that it was central to West Point’s Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” That pledge is supposed to be part of the bedrock undergirding West Point’s motto of “duty, honor, country.”

“Truth is a very tough standard to live with,” he said in our interview. “And I’m so embarrassed that West Point has just gone through another cheating scandal.” A cheating scandal in 1976 shocked the nation and the Army—then more than four decades passed without incident. The disruptions of COVID isolation are largely credited with the 2020 scandal. West Point officials discovered that dozens of cadets cheated on a math exam that they took remotely due to the pandemic.

“That’s why I think we have to keep reminding ourselves: There is no excuse for not telling the truth,” Dozier said.

Clearly, the reminders in his book are more timely than ever. Too many Americans—even some West Point cadets—have become un-moored from the pillars of community life that reinforce such basic values as truthfulness.

The Rotary Test: ‘Is it the truth?’

Just as Dozier felt right at home when he first encountered West Point’s emphasis on truthfulness, later in life he recognized that same moral pillar in the century-old service organization Rotary International. At that point in his long life, Dozier was transitioning from the military to become a leader in Florida agri-business.

“You could call me a turn-around specialist,” he said. Initially, he was asked to tackle a management shakeup in a company that ran 30,000 acres of citrus groves. Among his other leadership roles, Dozier worked with a nonprofit that provides transportation for needy families.

“The business and nonprofit worlds are the same as the military in a lot of ways: Your word had better be your bond,” he said. “That’s why I included Rotary in my book.”

As an active member of Rotary, he explains the group’s ethical code. That includes the famous Four-Way Test that Rotarians agree to use in their personal and professional relationships. That test now has been translated into more than 100 languages and is recited at meetings around the world. According to Rotary, the test is:

Of the things we think, say or do:
Is it the TRUTH?
Is it FAIR to all concerned?
Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? 

“Truth develops trust and, throughout my entire life, truth and trust have been intermingled—even when the Red Brigades held me captive and decided to put me into a kind of public trial they wanted to stage to try to show what they thought were American war crimes,” Dozier said. Even though his life was at stake, Dozier told his captors: “You can put me on trial, but you may not like what I have to say. I will not lie to you.”

“And there was something else about trust that I had to remember in that situation,” he said in our interview. “I was trusted not to disclose any information that was classified. And I told my captors that I would never disclose any classified information while they held me captive. I held to that. I never did.”

Dozier on the Importance of Church

As Dozier tells his story in Finding My Pole Star, he shows how that pole star is most clearly visible through the lens of his faith. And that faith depends on a lifetime of involvement with churches from his childhood until today. Currently, he attends Edison Congregational Church in Fort Meyers, Florida, which is coming up on its own centennial in 2025.

In the section of his book on attending West Point, for example, he explains how he carefully weighed his own religious commitments in light of the diversity of other cadets’ faiths. “As I talked with my friends about their religious commitments, and as I thought about religion in new ways, I began to realize why my mother had emphasized certain things in my early religious education. And I think that’s a common experience.  We may start with a faith we grow up with at home—but then all of us go through this process of questioning and learning what makes sense in our own lives. It was really at West Point, talking with my friends about the choices they were making, that I really began to nail down the beliefs that I would follow.

“Like the values of truth and trust and West Point’s ‘honor, duty, country,’ my faith really has shaped my whole life,” Dozier said.

Plus, public health research around the world now shows that active involvement in a congregation contributes to health, wellbeing and longevity.

“I certainly agree with that,” Dozier said. “Our church has a wonderful minister who inspires us. We have wonderful church organizations in which we stay active and we reach out to help other people. Since I’m 90 years old right now, I’m living proof of how important it is to remain sociable every single week. I can tell you: The longer you can maintain your social and religious relationships in life, the better off you are.”

In fact, Dozier says, he took the time to write this memoir—assisted by his friend Commander Douglas Quelch—to share this kind of valuable life lesson with others.

“You could call a lot of what I have learned ‘common sense values’—values that a lot of us grew up with and then develop further throughout our lives—but the truth right now is that we’ve got millions of young people who have not had as much opportunity to learn those values,” Dozier said. “Today, one of the most important things I do in my life is work with young people. So, if I had to describe an ideal reader for this book, I hope it would be young folks who might pick up through my stories how my pole star developed.

“We all face disappointments, setbacks and failures in life. How we respond to those fits and starts is what builds our character,” he said. “No one starts out in life with a clear-cut pole star. That vision develops throughout your life through the influences of people we encounter along the way. I am hoping that, through this book, I might be one of those positive influences in the lives of readers.”

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Care to Learn More?

Watch this brief video about Dozier’s memoir, Finding My Pole Star:

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Dr. Deanna Womack: Now, it’s time for ‘NEIGHBORS: Christians and Muslims Building Community’

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

As we pass the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and face a perilous new relationship with old foes in Afghanistan, there are no more timely words for all of us in America than these by Dr. Deanna Womack, who teaches interfaith relations at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta:

“We Christians and Muslims in the United States find ourselves at a turning point. We can either talk to and learn from one another, or we can slide into yet more fear, distrust and division. Positive things have come from the increasing diversity of our country, things like conversation about what we share as worshipers of the God of Abraham. Yet that same diversity gives rise to fear and resentment. Too often that fear focuses on Muslims. Too often politicians and religious leaders fuel that fear in order to boost their own power. … Our fellow American citizens represent just about every religious and nonreligious group on the planet. We Christians need to get along with all of them. But at the present moment, we need to reach out particularly to our Muslim neighbors.”

These are opening words from Womack’s book, NEIGHBORS: Christians and Muslims Building CommunityThis book for general readers is based on Womack’s career as a scholar and educator teaching interfaith relations at Candler—and in many congregations as well. Published by the Presbyterian Church’s Westminster John Knox (WJK) Press, the book’s nine chapters come with questions sprinkled throughout the text to spark individual reflections as well as conversation with friends. She also adds a complete discussion guide at the end of the book.

These examples from the chapter titles suggest Womack’s very practical approach:

  • Religious Diversity Starts at Home
  • Changing Our Minds about Other Religions
  • The Deep Roots of Islam in America
  • Opening Our Ears to Muslim Neighbors
  • Resources for Community Building

Readers who have been following our weekly ReadTheSpirit issues since our debut in 2007 will see right away that Womack’s overview of grassroots peacemaking parallels what our own team has been publishing over these 14 years. Womack’s goal in her new book is the same as many of our own books, including Love Loss and Endurance by journalist Bill Tammeus, Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Daniel Buttry, Friendship and Faith by the women of WISDOM, Reuniting the Children of Abraham by Brenda Rosenberg and Our Muslim Neighbors by Victor Begg.

This week, Victor Begg’s own new column appears in newspaper websites nationwide as well as in the widely read IslamiCity website. His message is appropriately headlined: 9/11 Remembrance Should Be a Time to Recommit to American Values. Like Womack, Begg points out that building peaceful relationships with our neighbors is part of what it means to be a good American.

So, if you already have some of these earlier books, why are we so strongly recommending Womack’s book now?

Because she is adding to this national chorus of peacemakers from her own unique perspective as a university-based scholar—and because she has focused her book on the weekly needs of mainline Christian congregations. She has skillfully adapted her stories—and her many discussion questions—to encourage a fresh wave of interfaith conversation. Congregations nationwide are home to millions of small groups, Sunday School classes and circles of men and women. Womack is experienced in working with those groups and has crafted her book as a resource that can be picked up and easily used by local group leaders.

The Most Common Questions about Islam

Womack talked with me about her efforts in the days just before the 9/11 anniversary in a wide-ranging interview about the timeliness of this effort.

“In planning this book, I started with the most common questions people ask me when I visit congregations,” Womack said. “It doesn’t matter whether the congregation is liberal or conservative, I am always asked: What is Islam? Is Islam violent? Doesn’t Islam oppress women?” she said.

“I’ve spent years thinking about how to present this information to seminary students who are going out into these congregations across the U.S. In this book, then, I’m thinking about how to present this to ordinary men and women across the country who are asking these same questions.”

In our interview, I asked Womack: “How much is 9/11 still shaping American attitudes toward Islam?”

“That’s a complex question to answer,” she said. “9/11 has been a reference point for Americans for 20 years, but it happened when I was back in college myself. I’m now teaching students who are so young that they have no personal memory of 9/11. What they know about it is mainly from stories they’ve been told by parents or grandparents. Then, there is everything that has happened among Christians and Muslims over the past decade. There’s the rise of Trump and new extremist groups. There are headlines from Afghanistan right now that are part of our national conversations.”

She paused, then added, “I think we all realize that this is difficult material to present to a group and then try to lead discussions about it. I’m thinking about all the people in congregations across the country who may want to explore Christian-Muslim relations in their classes and small groups over the coming year. They really need some guidance to help them understand the background and then to think about all these issues today. That’s why I wrote this book. That’s what I hope the book will help them to do.”

Womack is relentlessly hopeful. “There’s no way to go forward without being hopeful. As a Christian, I am hopeful.”

“Where do you see hope?” I asked.

“That starts with realizing that we are in a different world now than we were in 2001, and some of what has developed is good,” she said. “Yes, we know that we have seen various narratives of blame and anger and a desire for revenge. But we also have to note that, since 9/11, there have been so many new Muslim-Christian initiatives that were launched after 9/11 and now have matured. Right after 9/11, so many people wanted to know about Islam—and about how to counter all of the angry and negative voices people were hearing—that a lot of hopeful new work started. So, we have come a long way in these 20 years in developing new relationships and organizations.

“Having said that, I point out in my book that more than half of Americans still have not experienced a meaningful meeting with a Muslim. We are living together in our increasingly diverse communities, but there still are huge barriers between us. As Americans, millions of people still don’t know their neighbors. That has to be the starting point. That’s why NEIGHBORS is the title of my book.”

Reaching out to our neighbors is far more than a matter of warm feelings, Womack says. It can be a life-and-death issue. Hate crimes have risen in America during the pandemic, especially a dramatic rise in crimes targeting Asian Americans, but also against religious minorities, including Jews and Muslims.

“We have been living in some dark times and I don’t know if things are going to get better right away,” she said. “Things may get better as we move through COVID to a point where people are comfortable going out again and freely engaging with other people.”

A central message of her book is that, for the Christians she is addressing, this embrace of our neighbors is not merely a personal preference.

“This is our calling as Christians,” Womack says. “This isn’t an option for us. Of course we know that hate crimes are contrary to the teaching of Christ. But we are called to do so much more than just stand up against hate crimes. It’s part of my witness as a Christian to meaningfully connect with all of our neighbors so that everyone feels that we are part of the same community. I don’t have a choice about this. It’s my calling as a Christian.”

Rochelle Calvert invites us into the spiritual solace of ‘Healing with Natue’

Rochelle Calvert leading a retreat prior to the pandemic.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

After nearly two years of pandemic, simply opening the door to the outside world and gathering with others may seem like a daring step.

For years, Rochelle Calvert had been leading groups of pilgrims into spiritual encounters with the natural world, then her own plans for gatherings were hit by COVID concerns. Now, she is inviting all of us to get a taste of these adventures through her new book, Healing with Nature: Mindfulness and Somatic Practices to Heal from Trauma.

Plus, Rochelle has added free audio meditations, and there are  opportunities to meet her and join in her future programs. Of course, she charges for those in-person programs.

This is a good time to discover Rochelle’s work, because she is moving once again toward building a schedule of her signature in-person retreats. She is moving her home base this autumn to Taos, New Mexico—from which she plans to travel to her retreat sites across the Western states in coming years. She currently is booking guests for a November 19-23 retreat at Ghost Ranch, which once was artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s home in New Mexico.

(Note to readers: This is a good time to share this cover story with friends who might also be interested in Calvert’s work. You can do so by using the social-media links on this page, or even by printing out this story to share using the green “PrintFriendly” button at the end. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a friend who wants to read her book along with you and discuss it—or who might even want to go with you to Ghost Ranch.)

Rediscovering the Natural Roots of Our Faith

The central affirmation that Rochelle makes in her in-person work, her online teaching and in the pages of this book is that each of us can discover our own spiritual pathway toward healing with nature.

“I firmly believe that people need to be free to explore the spiritual paths that will bring them emotional, psychological and physical healing, so I am not trying to direct people into any one faith tradition,” Rochelle said in an interview about her book. “I want to help people to increase their capacity to experience their own faith.”

This approach is possible because all of the world’s religious traditions ultimately rest on truths that are drawn from the natural world and that continue to call followers to connect with the planet.

In 2015, Pope Francis wrote an entire encyclical on this theme, Laudato si’ (On Care for Our Common Home). The letter was so timely that the Vatican’s website crashed shortly after its release because so many people around the world wanted to read Francis’s message. Both Francis and Rochelle start by pointing out the same central dilemma. The pope begins his letter by addressing both the trauma humans are inflicting on the planet—and the trauma humans are experiencing in our own hearts, minds and spirits. The two are eternally related, he argues.

Similarly, Rochelle devotes her entire book to encouraging healthy responses to our collective trauma through a deepening relationship with the natural world. Rather than a lone voice crying in the wilderness, Rochelle’s new book is part of a global chorus, now.

And yet, in a number of ways, her approach also is unique.

Healing Our Many Forms of Trauma

Rochelle certainly is not alone in zeroing in on “trauma” as one of the central sources of the anxiety, conflict and violence we experience daily in our communities. For example, over many years our online magazine has recommended books by Dr. Robert J. Wicks; most recently his The Tao of Ordinariness was the subject of a cover stories. Then, Mindy Corporon, author of Healing a Shattered Soul, is now devoting her professional efforts to Workplace Healing, a project to assist employers in responding to the many traumas experienced in the lives of their employees.

So, then, why are we so strongly recommending Rochelle Calvert’s book and her ongoing work?

Because she is charting new territory with her series of outdoor retreats that take participants to many different locations around the West—as well as adapting those practices to outdoor experiences that readers can develop at home or close to home. As a writer and teacher, she is always thinking about adaptive strategies. She’s a fresh and compassionate voice.

The stories in the pages of her book ring true, because she has distilled them from her own, unique, real-world experiences.

She also is solidly grounded in her field. In the book, Rochelle defines “trauma” in terms summarized from leading international sources. You could find a similar definition, for example, in books by Dr. Wicks. Here is an example in Rochelle’s words, from page 2 of her book:

Traumatic experiences come in many different forms. The psychological community has classically defined traumatic events as including natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, war, combat, rape and other violent personal assaults. But trauma also can arise from experiences of loss of control, like medical trauma (including life-threatening illness, surgeries and childbirth) and the loss of a loved one. Betrayal, racism, bullying, abuse of power, helplessness, political unrest, pandemics and the climate crisis may also be traumatic experiences for an individual or a society.

In our interview, Rochelle explained, “Through my work and now through this book, I hope that people can learn to wake up and heal from trauma. To help people become healthier, I am encouraging spiritual practices with nature. I’m hoping that people begin by tasting these experiences and that they go on to develop their own unique way of healing through reciprocity with nature.”

In fact, as her book explains, the complex and timeless forces within the natural world can teach us a great deal about resiliency and recovery from trauma. In her opening pages, for example, she describes how the living creatures within the natural world try to regenerate after a disaster. Those regenerative forces often spring from the heart of that trauma.

In her book, she writes:

This is where the wisdom of the natural world can help. Nature has an intrinsic tendency to thrive, and it always works with and toward a traumatic or difficult experience to find a new way of being and restore health. We can see this in the way a tree grows back after a limb is torn off by the wind, or a tiny patch of grass grows up through a crack in concrete.

In 16 chapters across 288 pages, then, Rochelle lays out many of the principles she has found effective in her work with people over the years.

As a powerful bonus, she also adds links to audio meditations that readers of her book can download to enhance their reading experience.

THE AWARENESS OF A CAREGIVER

Over the years, our ReadTheSpirit magazine office has received dozens of review copies of new books about sources of spiritual renewal that humans can find in nature. After all, the idea stretches all the way back to the first book of the Bible, as Pope Francis points out.

What makes Rochelle’s book distinctive within this ongoing flow of books? One welcome feature of Rochelle’s book is that she writes with a veteran caregiver’s concern for readers who are not in perfect health. Countless other books seem to assume that readers are fit and flexible and capable of tackling all manner of outdoor activities. Within the opening sections of Rochelle’s book, she makes a point of stressing that not everyone is capable of every experience.

In a section called “Challenges of Attending to the Breath,” for example, she takes time to address readers who may have breathing concerns, including asthma. This may seem like a simple point, but this kind of real-world compassion for the wide range of our physical bodies is rare in such inspirational books. In a section on “Body Awareness,” Rochelle takes time to encourage readers to approach the ideas she is sharing with “an attitude of kindness and compassion” toward the limitations of our bodies.

‘TASTING WHAT IS POSSIBLE’

“This concern that you are picking up in my book is intentional and I’m glad you’re highlighting it,” Rochelle said in our interview. “For example, I’m a huge proponent of building from small steps until we gradually build up our capacity for some of these bigger experiences. Especially if people are working toward healing from challenging experiences in their lives, like trauma, then we don’t want to start by trying to sit with that in meditation for two hours right out of the gate. That’s probably going to flood us, to overwhelm us and to cause turmoil.

“What I’m encouraging is that people begin by tasting what is possible, like tasting the fruit of new life,” she continued. “We might even start with just five minutes of stepping outside into nature and opening our sensory doors to nature—and that short experience may start a ripple effect that can build day after day. We often undervalue how beneficial even short periods of time can be, especially if we welcome them, build on them and let them take their course in our lives.

“With small increments, we can move from that first tasting to build, day by day, toward real change in our lives and real healing.”

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Care to Learn More?

GET THE BOOK (and the links to audio meditations that are in the book). Healing with Nature: Mindfulness and Somatic Practices to Heal from Trauma is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

VISIT ROCHELLE’S WEBSITE. In our interview, Rochelle explained that some sections of her website, NewMindfulLife.com, will be updated through this autumn—but the website does contain a wealth of current information and resources. While some areas of the website still are being updated, one current page lists Rochelle’s upcoming schedule. The website also explains how to get in touch with Rochelle, how to sign up for some of her free content—as well as how to register and pay for future programs.

WATCH A BRIEF VIDEO:

 

 

 

Henry Brinton: ‘Standing Together’

The FDNY memorial wall is a 56-foot-long bronze wall of cast bas-relief bronze that honors the 343 firefighters who gave their lives in service to the public during the attacks. Commissioned by FDNY and unveiled in 2006 as a memorial to the fallen firefighters, it lists all of the fallen firefighters names, and is installed in the west wall of Engine Company 10–Ladder Company 10 on Greenwich Street between Albany Street and Liberty Street, just across from Ground Zero.

A Reflection on the 20th Anniversary of 9/11

By HENRY G. BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

Some anniversaries are joyful, but not this one.

Twenty years ago, on September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners. Two were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third was crashed into the Pentagon. And the fourth was heading toward Washington but was driven into a Pennsylvania field when passengers overwhelmed the terrorists.

Almost 3,000 people died, 25,000 were injured, and many others suffered long-term health problems. 9/11 stands as the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.

In response, Americans came together in the face of a common enemy. The motto “United We Stand” appeared everywhere, flags were flown and churches were packed. Muslim organizations quickly condemned that attacks, and President Bush made an appearance at an Islamic Center in Washington. He spoke of the valuable contributions that Muslims made to the United States every day, and called for them to be treated with respect.

September 11 was a day of horror, but it pulled Americans together in a remarkable way.

To be sure, there were many who felt excluded.

A stained glass window at St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran Church in Charleston, South Carolina, recalls Isaiah’s revelation from God. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

My next-door neighbor, an Iranian teenager who was a member of the Baha’i faith, was terrified of what his classmates would do to him. Turban-wearing Sikhs across the country were falsely accused of being terrorists. Many American Muslims were the victims of anger and bigotry. The slogan “United We Stand” did not include everyone.

Twenty years later, we are having a hard time standing together. Fortunately, the prophet Isaiah—revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims—has words of guidance for us. The church I serve as pastor, Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, gathers for worship each week under a verse from the prophet that appears on the wall behind the pulpit, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).

Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth by reading from the scroll of the prophet, and he went on to quote Isaiah eight times during his ministry—more than any other prophet. Both Isaiah and Jesus were committed to welcoming and including all of God’s children in the community of faith.

Unity remains a goal for us in the United States, and the challenges of 2001 are not behind us. If anything, they are bigger than ever. After 9/11, the danger was al-Qaeda. But today, our greatest threat is domestic terrorism—the people who attacked the Capitol earlier this year were extremists from our own country.

Now, more than ever, we need to respond to the invitation of the prophet Isaiah to “stand up together” (Isaiah 50:8). But how do we do this? How do we overcome polarization and take a united stand?

The first step is to teach the best of our religious traditions. Once again, the prophet Isaiah has some guidance for us: “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher” (Isaiah 50:4). As servants of God, we are to be teachers of grace and truth and justice. We are to treat others as we want to be treated, and to see everyone as a child of God, made in the image and likeness of God. We are to lift people up, not knock them down. Help them, not hurt them. Love them, not hate them. At the same time, we need to be humbly honest about the failings and limitations of our traditions, realizing that many of our traditions have led to hatred.

Next, we are challenged to cooperate with God.  “The Lord God has opened my ear,” says the servant in Isaiah, “and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward” (Isaiah 50:5). God is calling us into a better future, and our challenge is to follow where God is leading. We are being rebellious when we turn around and follow other voices. Not everyone worked for unity after 9/11, so this anniversary is giving us an opportunity to embrace the challenges we may have missed twenty years ago.

Peter Marty is a Lutheran pastor who is concerned about preaching in a time of deep political polarization. He has noticed that many worshipers are ready to assign a political motive to everything a preacher says. Preachers get in trouble for saying too much or too little about Black Lives Matter, about the Capitol invasion, or about the presidencies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

In the face of these challenges, Marty tries to preach sermons that help individuals to “meet God or be met by God.” Yes, he certainly feels called to reflect on cultural and political events, but he tries to do so in a way that offers new insights and fresh perspectives. He is not interested in lining up with partisan political positions.

But there is a problem, according to Marty: “many Christians now interpret faith through the prism of their political ideology.” It’s true for Christians on the right and on the left. And this approach is the opposite of what Isaiah recommends. Our challenge is to let the Lord God open our ears, and not rebel against God when we hear a challenging word. In a world of partisan politics, our goal should be to cooperate with God and move forward in God’s way.

The way of God always involves the building of bridges between people of diverse perspectives. “We are dividing into hostile tribes,” says retired General Jim Mattis. After four decades in the Marine Corps, Mattis knows that our internal divisiveness is often more threatening than our external enemies. Our focus should be on “rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions,” says Mattis.

Twenty years ago, the motto was “United We Stand.”

Today, our challenge is to do a better job of standing together by teaching the best of our religious traditions, cooperating with God and finding common ground.

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A version of this column appears in the preaching journal Homiletics.

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More about Henry

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

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

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