Remembering that holiday spirits range from fluffy, happy clouds to dark nights

“Happy” artist Bob Ross is more popular than ever as we cross into 2023! Amazon is selling Bob Ross calendars; is streaming 31 seasons of Bob Ross’s TV shows via its FreeVee service; and is selling Happy Clouds socks like the ones Ben Pratt enjoys.

For millions, the simple joys of the season are muted by somber memories.

Acknowledging those Dark Nights Helps with Healing

Author of A Guide for Caregivers

The setting—a restored 11th Century San Fedele Monastery, Chianti Region, Italy. We were gathered on a terrace with new acquaintances, wine, awaiting dinner before an evening of live jazz under the stars.

The socks—pale blue with puffy clouds, the words Happy Clouds, and the face of a smiling man with curly black beard and hair. I wore the socks because of their funky nature that contrasted with this unique setting and sterling location—suspecting they might break the ice and lead to an interesting conversation among strangers.

The results—far beyond my expectation.

Megan, a young woman, probably in her thirties, moved close and said, “You’re wearing Bob Ross socks.”

“I think you are correct,” I responded.

Her next words jolted me: “After my twin brother suicided, I tuned in to Bob Ross reruns every day because it was the only thing I could watch without crying.”

My immediate response, non-verbal, conveyed a look of compassion and concern. Then I said, “I would be very willing to hear more if you wish to tell me.”

She told me the bare bones reality that she suspected led to his decision, and then more about the devastating impact on her.

Perhaps you share the questions that flow from a conversation like that one: How do we travel this spiritual journey of grief? Or, how can we heal from a broken heart? As we approach the holidays we are mindful that grief is often more intense in this time of family gatherings when the absence of one can be most obvious.

First, I need to say that grieving takes far more time than we anticipate in our world of K-cup coffee and e-mail. The grieving process isn’t fast. The duration for grieving may be in direct proportion to the intensity of the loss, and, therefore, is quite personal. As Shakespeare tells us through Othello: “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?” The stages through which we must journey toward healing can be shock, anger, guilt, depression, bargaining, and then maybe healing acceptance.

Losses caused by sin, another’s violation of us or our violation of another, are the most difficult to heal because these involve forgiveness. Forgiveness is the ability to give up hope of a different past. It requires a different memory.

Options for surviving loss include burying yourself with your talents in the small room of safety or making a trusting leap of faith back into the unknown, just as Megan was doing by participating in JazZen Journey at San Fidele.

Do we stay on the bench or do we get back into the game?

Either way, it is a cost and a promise! We need to live into the hope that the risk is worth the promise of trust and joy.

Now, let me tell you a story from literature that illustrates the issue of loss and risking. (I suspect my choice of literature may surprise some of you.) This illustration comes from a novel, not from the movie which has little to do with the book. The writings of Ian Fleming, namely the James Bond, 007 series, are some of the most important religious narratives of the 20th century, in my opinion.

Listen as I tell you a story about loss and risking from James Bond. James Bond was married only once. His wife was shot and killed by Bond’s archenemy on the day of their wedding. Bond began to lose his edge. He didn’t show up for work; he began to deal with his loss by drinking and eating too much, gambling and losing his sense of mission. His boss, M, had Bond examined by a psychiatrist-neurologist named Sir James Malony who reported to M that Bond was in shock, and that his behavior was quite understandable. Then he says the thing that captured my attention: “We must teach them that there is no top to disaster.”

Everyone of us has a top to disaster.

It’s probably different for all of us: loss of a child, physical or psychological abuse, robbery at gunpoint, betrayal of a close friend, imprisonment, cancer, losing a pet, shaming oneself in front of friends. When we go over the top of our disaster limit, we are prone to reduce our world to a small, predictable, controlled safe place.

Risking our talents is the last thing we are prone to do—but that is what Sir James Malony prescribes. And then Sir James says an even more remarkable thing in response to M’s request of help for Bond. His answer is “We must give him an impossible job.”

In contrast to suggesting a month on a cruise liner, we hear that “he should be given an impossible job.” So M sends Bond on a mission to infiltrate and destroy a castle created for people who have lost faith in life, a castle where people can kill themselves. Bond himself could have been a candidate, since he had lost faith. Instead he is sent to risk facing and destroying it.

The man who created this castle of death is the same devil who killed Bond’s wife. By confronting and killing the devil of despair, Bond confronts his own despair and is on the road to healing his wounds. Yes, this is an allegory that is as much about the inner journey as the outer journey.

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I am not suggesting that we get ourselves off our own hands by attending to others or a larger mission. Turning outward can come after we have done the painful interior work of feeling loss. This is why most hospice programs will not accept volunteers who are not at least one year away from a significant death.

Eventually, however, the grief journey must include turning outward to heal the losses and grief in oneself, which feels like an impossible risk.

Perhaps real recovery takes place only when we take our own wound and turn it outward
to give generously and with gratitude to others.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said, upon the death of a close friend: “I must love myself into action lest I wither in despair.”

Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest shared that “the wound of Jesus is like the Grand Canyon, a deep incision in the earth’s surface that has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and meaning.” The wounds of Jesus have become a source of beauty for many.

Our wounds may become a source of meaning for others also.The pain can end and the healing take place when we take the beauty of our own pain and extend it as a gift to others. As their hurt is healed, so is ours.

My deep appreciation of music has a wide perspective. Willie Nelson wrote the following slow and sentimental song with his longtime co-producer, Buddy Cannon. The producer explained the genesis of this song lay in his overhearing Nelson consoling a friend who had lost a loved one.



Care to read more?

Based near Washington D.C., the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a retired pastoral counselor with 40 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a retired member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. He writes regularly for ReadTheSpirit online magazine and also is a featured columnist at the website for the popular Day1 radio network.

His book, A Guide for Caregivers, has helped thousands of families nationwide cope with the wide array of challenges involved as more than 50 million of us serve as unpaid caregivers in the U.S. alone. In 2021, Ben will continue to write about caregiving issues for us.

His book, Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins and 007’s Moral Compass, explores some of the themes in this week’s Holy Week column, including an in-depth look at Accidie.

If you find these books helpful, and if you suggest that your small group discuss these books, we would love to hear from you about your response, ideas and questions. Or, if you are interested in ordering these books in quantity, please contact us at [email protected]




PEOPLE magazine celebrates the work of ‘Struck by Hope’ author Jeanine Patten-Coble

So many families agree:
The world’s a better place because of Jeanine’s work

Cancer-survival cheerleader, coach and philanthropist Jeanine Patten-Coble is featured in PEOPLE magazine in a feel-good feature, headlined: Mom Who Beat Breast Cancer Gives Free Vacations to Patients and Their Families to Make ‘Priceless Memories’ 

Why did PEOPLE’s editors choose to celebrate her work? Because, as those editors explain: “For the past 12 years, breast cancer survivor Jeanine Patten-Coble has created getaways for thousands of other patients and loved ones.”

The story by Johnny Dodd and Wendy Grossman Kantor, says in part:

The retreats are exactly what cancer patients—and their families—need during their healthcare battles. Charlotte-area youth track coach Toshika Hudson-Canon, 43—who was diagnosed with stage-two breast cancer in January and spent a week at a beachside home on Emerald Isle, N.C., in August with her three kids and husband—found the getaway was relaxing and transformative.

“It was life-changing,” she says, “especially for my children, who became friends with other children in the same situation.”

Care to read the entire PEOPLE feature?

Check it out on PEOPLE’s website.

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

Care to learn more about Jeanine’s work?

Get the whole story in her inspiring memoir, Struck by Hope: The True Story of Answering God’s Call and the Creation of Little Pink Houses of Hope.

In ‘Shining Brightly,’ Howard Brown shares how he summoned the resilience to beat Stage IV cancer twice

Just in time for Rosh Hashanah, we are publishing one of the most inspiring books our team has had the pleasure to prepare. With the release of Shining Brightly by Howard Brown, we’re all thinking: New Year? New Hope!


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

Free to download from the Shining Brightly discussion guide:

What are the ‘Keys to Resiliency when Confronting Cancer?

Over three weeks, we are sharing with our readers the three major themes of Shining Brightly by Howard Brown. The first is resilience in our struggles with cancer. Howard Brown is nationally known as an exceptionally rare survivor of advanced Stage IV cancer twice! Regularly, he speaks to groups about the principles of resiliency. On a daily basis, he is a “cancer whisperer” for families facing this traumatic struggle.

This is why Dr. Anna D. Barker, co-founder of the American Association for Cancer Research Scientist Survivor Program, is endorsing this book for everyone touched by cancer: “As a mentor in our program, Howard motivates everyone to build mutually beneficial relationships that educate, inspire and ultimately heal. Shining Brightly offers a compelling landscape of possibilities for cancer patients, survivors and indeed anyone who wants to become their best self!”

So, right here, Howard is freely sharing this part of the Discussion Guide for his new book—a page that lists 18 keys to resiliency that have proven valuable in his life and in the lives of people he has mentored through cancer. The list ends with two open slots for you and your friends to add during your discussion of the book, based on your own experiences. Howard also invites discussion groups to get in touch with him to share your ideas and experiences.

Download Here

Click on this image to download a printable and shareable PDF.





Care to learn more?

This is a perfect moment to become one of Howard’s growing global community of friends by ordering your copy of his book.

Here are other articles we have published, exploring the launch of this book:

Take a look at the book’s Foreword: ‘Shining Brightly’ Foreword by Dr. Robert J. Wicks: ‘Learn anew about the American Dream’

We ask these timeless questions at each New Year: ‘Who shall live and who shall die?’ In this moving and inspiring column, Howard Brown writes about the powerful spiritual resources in our religious traditions that can help families struggling with cancer renew their resiliency.

Download printable and shareable resource guides for discussing Shining Brightly:





‘What the world needs now is Hugs, Hugs, Hugs!’ Thanks to Zamir Khan, that’s easier than ever.

Clicking on this image will take you to the website right now.


Canadian Software Engineer Zamir Khan Is Helping Millions of Families to Hug Again

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“What the world needs now is: Hugs! Hugs! Hugs!” media entrepreneur Howard Brown told me as he urged me to check out the popular new service: Founded just before the COVID pandemic at the urging of a small circle of friends and family living in Canada, VidHug now is exploding around the world with more than 4 million hugs delivered so far.

“We all need a good hug after more than a year of isolation,” Howard said as we worked together on the editing of his upcoming memoir, Shining Brightly. Howard’s upcoming book is full of dozens of ways you can brighten the world—one act of kindness at at a time. “I practice what I preach and I found this super-easy-to-use online service,, to help me send a few more hugs out into the world even in the midst of this pandemic. People absolutely love the videos we’ve created on this service. They’re overwhelmed when they see the VidHug the first time—and I’ve found that they like to view these hugs again and again. Whenever they’re feeling lonely, that VidHug is right there for them.”

Howard’s creation of personalized VidHug videos is mentioned in his book as just one example of his own outreach to friends and loved ones. So, Howard and I resolved to track down VidHug’s founder, Zamir Khan, and schedule a Zoom interview with him. Adding to our interest in meeting Zamir is a book co-authored by Howard’s wife, Lisa Brown. It’s called Now What? A Guide to the Gifts and Challenges of Aging. From the very first chapter of that book, “isolation and exclusion” are identified by researchers worldwide as the No. 1 threat to health and wellbeing as we age. In Lisa Brown’s section of that book, she emphasizes the healthy benefits of taking part in public service as we age. Given their own writing about personal connections, both of the Browns have become big fans of

Zamir Khan: ‘People feel better after sharing’

Zamir Khan

When we explained our idea of publishing a story about VidHug in an email to Zamir, he scheduled an hour of Zoom time with us.

In our interview, I told him: “Zamir, did you know there’s real scientific research that says making meaningful connections with other people is a ‘social determinant’ of health? It’s clear from reading about you on your website that you’re doing this because people enjoy this experience.”

“And, right now in the middle of a pandemic it’s also a perfect entrepreneurial project,” Howard added.

“But, one thing we wanted to ask you is: Are you following the public-health research about the effects of isolation?” I said. “We think there’s a strong case to be made that meaningful contact like this actually contributes to people’s health and wellbeing. Are you following those studies?”

“In general, of course, I know that people enjoy what we’re enabling them to do,” Zamir said. He explained that public health research is not his specialty, but welcomed our making that connection from the team of authors who produced Now What?

“I don’t want to misrepresent the data,” I cautioned. “No researcher has specifically tested the health benefits of your—although, maybe someone will study it someday at the rate your online service is growing. But, the overall finding is that meaningfully connecting with people on a regular basis will tend to help them live happier and longer lives.”

“Well, I am glad to have you making that connection with what we do,” Zamir said.

We also immediately mailed him a copy of Now What? Collectively, we are trying to find allies to spread the message—in this era of deep divisions—that there’s healthy power in authentic human connection.

How Zamir Discovered the Power of a Virtual Hug

Zamir discovered that power himself when he created an online video montage for his own mother’s birthday, inviting family and friends to send him short video clips of their messages for the birthday girl. Given Zamir’s professional background as a software developer for sophisticated medical devices, he understood how to gather digital files, edit them, create a colorful montage and post it online.

That was the very first and only VidHug several years ago. Today, after hundreds of thousands of VidHugs from around the world, Zamir has published that “origin story,” which begins:

I pressed play and watched with bated breath. We were all sitting in the living room of my home, including my wife, our young children, and my parents. Everyone’s stomach was full after having celebrated my Mom’s 70th birthday at a delicious vegan restaurant (her choice!). The MacBook placed on her lap was about to play a video that I had painstakingly spent many days to put together. Looking back, I had no idea (a) how emotional her reaction would be and (b) that I had started on a path to building VidHug.

Corine, my mother, undoubtedly like someone in your own life, is notoriously difficult to buy gifts for. She doesn’t have material wants and spending a lot of money is a surefire path to her disapproval. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that she doesn’t need anything other than your love, presence, and maybe a hug. 

If you care to read the rest of Zamir’s origin story, this link will take you to his website.

The First Key Is Ease of Use

Everybody knows how to hug. It’s as simple as opening and then closing your arms.

“A VidHug should be simple, too,” Zamir said in our interview. “In fact, we keep updating the service all the time based on user comments. That’s our concept really: Anyone should be able to do this.

“When I made that first VidHug, it was so popular that I had lots of people asking me to teach them how to make these—or even to do this for them. I didn’t have that much time. I thought: I just should build a way for people to create these videos without having to understand all the software. As I went, I envisioned this: Think of my aunt who is not a technical person and certainly isn’t interested in becoming a power user. If I could help my aunt create something like this with a few clicks, then she’d certainly want to do it.

“To this day, we keep telling ourselves: If we can make this even simpler—we will.”

“Yeah, I can testify to that,” Howard said. “Your users don’t need to know all the technical magic that’s built into the software. They just want to create a VidHug and, for most people, that’s got to be very easy. Your service definitely is user friendly.”

The Second Key Is Self Expression

“The other goal we have is: ‘Joyful connections made easy’,” Zamir said. “Or, because some of these connections are for more serious or somber occasions, we also say, ‘Meaningful connections made easy’.”

On his website, Zamir lists the most popular occasions for VidHugs:

  • Holidays—so many opportunities!
  • Birthdays—and anniversaries
  • Weddings—lots of opportunities to support the loving couple
  • Business—especially onboarding videos to greet remote staff
  • Schools—perhaps to welcome children back to school or to celebrate a special school event
  • Memorials—celebrating the lives of loved ones

“The power of these little video clips is that you’re seeing each person—or group of people—speaking to you from wherever they’ve turned on their camera,” Zamir said. “Even if their message is just 30 seconds or so, that’s a much more meaningful connection than the typical note you find on Facebook.”

Far and away, Facebook remains the most popular platform for sending greetings at milestones that pop up in users’ lives.

“But think about how a typical Facebook birthday greeting happens,” Zamir said. “That happens just because it’s automatically built into your profile. Your birthday pops up and people may acknowledge that, but usually most of them are as basic as three letters: HBD. Typing three letters to mark someone’s birthday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful connection. But, going on video and talking for even a few moments to the other person—that’s really expressing yourself.”

Even after the Pandemic, Isolation Still Will Be a Challenge

It’s true that is a pandemic success story, Zamir acknowledged. The numbers tell the story.

“We were getting a few hundred visitors per day before the pandemic,” he said. “By May 2020, we were getting more than 100,000 people visiting each day—and recording 30,000 videos per day. When this idea started, it was just me. Now, we now have a team of seven and the you see today is the product of our developers and customer support staff.”

The pandemic solved the entrepreneur’s greatest challenge: discoverability. How does anyone even know you are offering a product? With enforced isolation, millions of people suddenly were Googling for solutions—then sharing their discovery widely across social media.

“So, yes, we are growing because of the pandemic,” Zamir said. “But the thing we all have to acknowledge is: There was isolation before the pandemic—and there will be isolation after the pandemic ends.

“What has motivated me all my life is simply trying to do work that will make our world a little better place,” he said. “When I was working on the software for sophisticated medical devices, I had the satisfaction of knowing that my work did have a positive purpose. But the impact was distant and indirect. I was contributing to a device that a salesperson had to bring to doctors, who might use it and eventually someone would be helped—but it was not an impact that I ever could see. I was quite removed from the positive results of what I was doing.

“But today, I can see the positive contributions these videos are making every day. That’s why I still like to do some of the customer support myself, because it connects me with the users of our service. I’ve heard so many stories of people telling us how these video messages helped them to get through some very tough days.

“You might think that our service is mainly used for happy times like birthdays or holidays, but I’ll never forget a woman who told me about her father who was so ill that it was clear he would not be leaving the hospital. So, the family used VidHug to share farewell wishes and the hospital’s chaplain sat down in the room and watched the VidHug with him.

“When you hear a story like that, you realize that this isn’t just a business. This is a real privilege to become a part of these families’ lives.”



Care to Read More?

In our special We Are Caregivers section of ReadTheSpirit, you will find an excerpt from the opening pages of Now What? That passage begins to explain the central challenge of isolation, which millions of us experience even without pandemic restrictions. If you have interest in this new book—or in organizing a group discussion of it—please email us at [email protected]

Have you established a memorial? A sacred place in your heart?


Memorial Day commemorates those who died while serving in our armed forces—but this special day also inevitably reminds us of other losses we’ve experienced. It’s healthy to pause and ponder the way we make sacred room for these memories.

One half-mile south of the Occoquan River on I-95 in Virginia, one of the busiest corridors in our nation, is a place lodged in my memory and heart. The roadway is different now. What was then four lanes, divided by a grassy hill, has become eight lanes of concrete, ramps, guard rails and, of course, speeding cars and trucks.

Decades ago, I was the founding pastor of a new church in a planned community adjacent to I-95. Four of us in that community—three clergy and one paid fireman—did most of the fire and rescue runs during the daylight hours from Volunteer Fire Co. 10. Many of our calls were in response to accidents on I-95. To this day, I never drive that highway without remembering the spot of two runs we made.

One was filled with sadness—one with joy.

A doctor and his wife had recently bought a Winnebago Camper. She and her teenage son were driving north on I-95 in the camper while her husband followed in another car. On a curve over a steep hill, she lost control and the camper toppled over the guardrail and down the hill, bursting into flames. A young marine jumped from his car and pulled the burned son to safety but was not able to save his mother. Our arrival on the scene was to provide transportation of the victims and support for the father who was crumpled in shock and sadness. The son was flown to a burn-trauma center. There are no markers, and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the trauma and sadness of a family’s instant transformation.

There is a memorial in my heart for the family as well as for the caregivers, the first responders, who served them well.

And, then the other memory follows.

It had not rained for three weeks in late August and the road had developed a film of oil. During a sudden rain storm, a north-bound 18-wheeler hydroplaned and the truck toppled with its wheels pointing north and the whole vehicle lay horizontal across all lanes.

One more amazing detail. A Ford Mustang had slid under the truck’s trailer as it toppled, with only the hood sticking out between the wheels. The rest of the car was crumpled under the trailer. When rescue teams arrived, we assumed no one was alive in the Mustang. Someone crawled under the trailer and tapped on the door of the crushed car.

Someone tapped back! Amazing! How to get to them? The rear trailer door was opened to reveal a full load of green tomatoes. Folks poured out of the blocked cars and began unloading the tomatoes onto the median strip. Special saws cut out the side of the trailer, the top was lifted off the Mustang, and four adults and two children, all pocked from broken glass, emerged from the vehicle.

I cried. What a miracle. There are no markers and the landscape has been altered beyond recognition, but deeply seated in my mind’s eye is the joy of that miraculous moment.

Across our land are countless markers left by families and friends to remember loved ones lost in traffic accidents. Roadside shrines of all descriptions dot the landscape as memorials, but for many, like myself, the memorial is carried in our minds and hearts—and the site is never passed without a moment of remembrance.

I write this to lift up each of our sacred moments of remembrance and to also express gratitude to the caregiver and first responders, be they professional or volunteer.

Memorial Day is a fitting occasion to remember those who died in our armed forces. If you have a chance to speak to a veteran this weekend about brothers or sisters lost in battle—their stories are likely to be quite specific about the location of the loss. By acknowledging the person and place—by remembering and sharing our stories like this—we are setting aside sacred space in our hearts.

THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT is a pastoral counselor with 30 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He also is one of ReadTheSpirit’s most popular columnists on a wide range of issues. Learn more about his books in our bookstore.

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

“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 …


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!”


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.


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.


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.


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, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Interfaith Cooperation Brings Health and Hope

Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Religious and health-care leaders gathered in Detroit for a one-day conference to discuss collaborating more closely as they serve needy families. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I was at the heart of that gathering as moderator for the conference’s lineup of speakers.

That’s where our publishing house wants to be: connecting men and women with diverse religious and health-giving resources. Why? Because, as ReadTheSpirit expands to publish many new kinds of books, our core mission remains: publishing information that builds healthy communities.

In this column, I will tell you more about the inspiring conference in Detroit, but first—you’re also sure to be inspired by these resources …


The annual one-day conference was hosted by Michigan’s Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. The coalition involves many groups, but it’s 2014 gathering was chiefly sponsored by the St. John Providence Health System. Dr. Cynthia Taueg represented St. John, which has a long history of promoting Faith & Community Nursing and St. John also is part of an innovative Healthy Neighborhoods program in Detroit.

Addressing the crowd, Dr. Taueg said improving neighborhoods begins with improving individual lives: “We understand that you can’t have healthy communities without healthy people.”

As a lifelong Detroiter, Dr. Taueg said, “We’re at a crossroads in Detroit. By the time I finally transition from this life, I want people to say: Oh, you’re talking about Detroit? I know that’s one of the healthiest places in America to live.”

To achieve such a grand goal, Dr. Taueg said, health systems must work with faith communities. Throughout the day, Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy talked with the crowd about the importance of promoting expanded health-care coverage and getting congregations more involved in caregiving partnerships, overall. Also, Taueg was joined by leaders from other health-care programs who talked to the crowd about current challenges in meeting their larger goals.

The Rev. Timothy Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio, talked about his own public campaign for expanded health coverage in Ohio.

Faith leaders must play a role, he urged. “You represent hope. Your imaginative faith brings hope alive. Your brain and spirit—wired to hope—allow others to grab hold when the waters of despair are sweeping over them.”

Kelly Herron, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit—known nationwide as America’s oldest free clinic—said that religious groups need to continue supporting free clinics. Even as medical coverage expands nationwide, many men, women and children will continue to need help.

“We’re the safety net for the safety net,” she said.

Herron also urged religious leaders to help members in their communities navigate the complex new layers of health care. She described how her clinic is helping clients to register for health coverage, but signing up is only the first step.

“As they are approved, our patients cry. They’re so happy. They are overwhelmed,” she said. “Then, they ask us: ‘Now what?'” Countless men and women are coming into health-care systems this year for the first time. Many of them have no experience accessing doctor’s offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Congregations can share helpful information to smooth this often rocky transition.

Melissa DaSilva—director of operations for Advantage Health Centers, which specialize in linking government programs especially with people who are struggling with homelessness—told the crowd that health care is more than a matter of dispensing treatment.

“Health care is also about helping people to achieve wellness by obtaining a housing wage and affordable housing,” she said.

As DaSilva urged participants to think broadly about health and caregiving in their communities, many heads nodded and pens scratched notes about her recommendations. Other speakers echoed her broader vision of the challenge shared by health care systems and religious groups.

Marcella Wilson, president of MATRIX Human Services, talked about the MATRIX method of linking a wide range of programs to help men and women move out of chronic cycles of poverty. It’s not enough simply to treat a medical condition, or provide a shelter, or serve food—or provide any one response disconnected from others, she said. Helping people climb out of poverty requires many kinds of partnerships. She urged faith leaders to find out how they can contribute to such efforts, wherever they are based.

This is hard work, Wilson told the crowd. “As leaders in a city with desperate need and boundless optimism, we need to remember that vision without backbone is hallucination!”

Renee Branch Canady, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute, echoed Wilson’s and DaSilva’s appeals for broad vision in meeting the needs of people living in poverty. Canady’s nonprofit advocates at all levels—from local communities to Washington D.C.—on behalf of collaborative programs to build healthier communities.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to still be having this conversation,” Canady told the crowd. One way to inspire the hard work of forging cooperative new programs is to tap into our deepest values, including the values within faith communities. “We must invite our values to the table with us,” she said.

Adding to the list of issues that congregations can address, Canady said one challenge religious groups might tackle is easier access to everyday, healthful activities. An example: Many neighborhoods don’t have safe and barrier-free areas where residents can go walking each day.

“We must look at the built environment around us,” she said. “If we want people to get exercise by walking more, then we have to provide places they can walk. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Can people walk around your neighborhood?”

The Rev. Dr. Urias Beverly told the crowd about the deep roots of these issues in the Abrahamic faiths. Beverly is the director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. He also serves as professor of pastoral care and counseling,

“Health and religion have been wedded as long as there have been men and women on the earth,” Beverly said.

Tom Watkins, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, closed the conference by reminding faith leaders that mental health issues are an essential part of congregational caregiving.

“There is not a zip code in the United States that is not touched by the mental health care system,” Watkins said. “And if your own family and friends have not been touched by mental health issues—then it’s only a matter of time before someone you know is a part of this.”

He urged religious leaders to go home and spread the word: “Without quality mental health care—you don’t have quality health care.”

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