Clearing boulders: In our culture, forgiveness is a surprise ending

A Truly Counter-Cultural Story


“Sue the doctor!”

That’s what friends and family urged my father-in-law, Donald Bosserman, to do after we discovered a mistaken diagnosis would end his life. How could this happen!?! There was no way to save him now. We wanted revenge.

I know a lot about “Revenge,” the action of hurting another in return for the wrong done to me, and “Avenge,” the verb that describes inflicting retribution or exacting satisfaction in such cases. We all know those words, because they are the fuel of our popular culture.

In recent years, my book about the spiritual lessons behind Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels has taken me into discussion groups far and wide. My focus is on the way Fleming crafted the novels to portray his hero as pursuing the seven, modern, deadlier sins that Fleming was convinced posed the greatest evils in our age.

One night, following a talk on Fleming and Bond, a man came up to me and wisely observed, “I know your 007 book is based on Ian Fleming’s literary tales and not on the films, but have you noticed that the recent Bond films—and almost all action films these days—are rooted in one theme: revenge?”

He was spot on. We are hurt in so many ways, season after season, and our culture tells us: The solution is revenge.

But there is an alternative story—think of it as a possible surprise ending—after all the tales of vengeance on TV, at the movies and in the front-page headlines that dominate our culture.

In more than 30 years with my father-in-law, he taught me this lesson. First, Donald taught me about clearing boulders. In the latter years of his life, he and his wife lived in Pennsylvania on a wooded lot filled with trees and boulders—land that once was riddled by bullets and bombs in the pivotal battle of our Civil War. They lived less than a half mile from the Eternal Peace Light on the Gettysburg Battlefield.

Donald delighted in landscaping with trees, plants and boulders. He was always rearranging, and each time I visited, at least once a month, there were boulders to move—60, 100, 300 pound boulders. We strained, grunted, pushed, leveraged and laughed them to fit his new vision. Then we would sit on the boulders, sweating and drinking and talking about the ups and downs of our lives.

With refreshed energy, he then would jump up and say we needed to split and rack some wood for the fires, as fall was not far off.

The last months of Donald’s life were discouraging, difficult and degenerative. We were there every weekend as he declined in a nursing home. Donald’s doctor had misdiagnosed his illness as ulcers, not colon cancer. Once the correct diagnosis was made it was too late and the decline precipitous.

That’s when friends and family started talking about a lawsuit against the doctor.

I told Donald about this, but he wouldn’t stand for it. He called a couple of us to his bedside where he said unequivocally, “I will not rest peacefully in my grave if my family pursues any action against the doctor. He is human. He made a mistake. It was not intentional. I have forgiven him. If any of you continue to live with resentment or seek revenge, it will ruin your lives.”

And then he said, “Resentment is a closet full of rusty swords. If you don’t forgive; if you persist with resentment and think of vengeance, you will impale yourself on those rusty swords.”

Is it any wonder that I admired and loved him more deeply at that moment?

As Johann Christoph Arnold, the great peacemaker, puts it: “If I don’t forgive, I am a bound person. I am consumed by the person who has hurt me. I am consumed night and day by him. If I forgive, I let go of all that. I do myself a favor by forgiving.”

My father-in-law knew that. Yes, resentment is like a closet full of rusty swords.

Or, like a great big boulder we must clear to see life’s beauty again.

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

As Advent begins, borrow a football strategy: We>Me

By congregational consultant Martin Davis

(Read more about Martin Davis’s work at the end of this column.)

On Thanksgiving, after the last touchdown is tallied and the leftover turkey is tucked into the refrigerator, you’re going to head to church on Sunday to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas is upon us! And that means every church in America is thinking about how to turn once-a-year visitors who attend on Christmas Eve—the biggest church-sampling opportunity each year—into more-regular attendees.

How do you plan to reach people this Advent? The strategy I’m going to share with you today springs from a slogan used by my son’s undefeated, championship-winning middle school football team. Let me tell you about “We > Me.”

Before this championship season started, my son’s coach developed a rallying cry, as most coaches do each year. We’ve seen a lot over the years, but I particularly liked this one: We > Me. The resonance with football is obvious. It’s a team game—no one player can be responsible for winning and losing. Everyone must pull in the same direction. Win or lose, you’re in it together.

The same is true when converting occasional attendees into regular members of your community. Winning these people over requires your church pulling together in the same direction. Both in terms of message, and in terms of the tools you use to communicate it. In short, you have to ask: How do “We” communicate to those who come to us?


Welcoming and connecting with visitors begins with examining your current communications and what they say about who you are and how you talk together. As Advent is this coming Sunday, let’s leave the bigger questions for January and instead examine three simple things you can do to find out if you’re communicating to your visitors as “We” instead of “Me.”

COLLECTING VISITOR INFORMATION: Whatever you use to collect information about visitors, are you asking about them and their needs—or pushing your agenda? Compare a “We” visitor’s card versus a “Me” visitor’s card:

  • ME: Your card or welcoming volunteer asks visitors if they want a call or email or pastoral visit; if they have a church home; if they have a prayer request. For visitors, the first two sound like what they are—member solicitation; can we recruit you? The third is asking for very personal information before they even know you.
  • WE: Your card or welcoming volunteer points them to ways to help others during the holiday season—food delivery, wrapping presents, singing in a special choral event, etc. The message? We are a place that serves, and we need and value your special gifts.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN: Newcomers frequently bring children. Are you prepared?

  • ME: Shuttling the kids from their parents as quickly as possible for the sake of worship decorum. Or shuttling them out the door after the first 15 minutes of worship.
  • WE: Let the families decide. If they wish to stay together, be prepared from them in worship, in Sunday School, and in-between. If they wish to move their separate ways, make sure you walk them to where they need to go—don’t expect signs to do all the work. The message? We take care of one another.

PREACH IT (EFFECTIVELY)! Don’t be afraid to say who you are, and who you are about, from the pulpit.

ME: Sermons as usual. The message? If you aren’t from here, figure it out.

WE: As actors exaggerate their movements and volume on stage, so should ministers exaggerate who the church is. The message? We care enough not to assume you will figure it out. Take extra time to explain the worship service as it unfolds, point out how to follow the music and readings, talk about what the church is doing in the community. Loop back to what I mentioned above—that “We” message you’re delivering as you welcome visitors.

All for One

These three simple steps will allow you to speak and greet as “We.” Is it more effective? Do some simple math and find out. Did a greater percentage of new guests return in three months than they did last Advent season? If they did, you have a lot to build on. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? Did the message match your members’ actions? If you don’t know, keep better data so you can compare next Advent’s results.

Whether you “win a championship” and get lots of new members, or struggle through a tough season, you will do it together. And learn more about who you are as a community. Either way, We > Me will yield a much stronger team.


ReadTheSpirit works closely with nationally known church consultant and media expert Martin Davis. We publish occasional columns, sharing his wisdom with our readers—and we are working on a couple of 2014 book projects Martin is assembling, so stay tuned! Right now, you may find some of Martin’s past columns valuable …

Your Newsletter May Shock You—and These Possibilities Will Excite You: Martin writes about the transition to e-newsletters and lessons you’ll want to learn for making your e-newsletter more useful.

4 “Secrets” to a Successful Website for Your Congregation: As Martin lays out the issues, these “secrets” make a lot of sense!

Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media: Martin’s trademark style is to cut through the hype and quickly bring readers some common-sense steps toward successful communication.

Care to contact Martin Davis? Visit his Sacred Communication website to learn more.

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

The Bernie S. Siegel interview on ‘The Art of Healing’

Dr. Bernie Siegel stands in a rare circle of pioneers who still are guiding today’s army of spirituality-and-health advocates. So, it’s big news that Bernie’s latest book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing is available in time for holiday shopping. If you already own some of his books, then today’s interview will underline the unique nature of this new book. Among other things: Hey, it’s fun! This new book is packed with lots of material about Bernie’s long-standing work on visualization, symbols, drawings—and good humor.

Ancient inspiration: The faith-and-health connection stretches back thousands of years to the founders of the world’s great faiths and to the physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim leaders were pioneers in founding hospitals. The first major Islamic hospital was established in 707 in Syria—with Christian assistance. In Europe by the later Middle Ages, Christian religious orders drew on both ancient Roman and newer Islamic ideas to establish their own hospitals. Flash forward to 18th-century America and Shakers were among the many new religious movements to connect health and religion. By the late 19th century, advocates like Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were changing the way all Americans thought about food, faith and health.

A new wave of scholars: It should have come as no surprise, in the late 1970s, when famous journalist Norman Cousins dropped the first of his bombshell books about the importance of what amounted to spiritual awareness, coupled with nutrition, in combating serious medical problems. Among Cousins’ famous words of advice? Teach yourself to laugh! And, in Bernie Siegel’s new book, there’s a whole section on that discipline of humor. (Care to read more right now? Our weekly WeAreCaregivers section has an excerpt of Bernie’s chapter on laughter.)

Of course, Cousins was greeted with skepticism—and even scorn from some critics who felt the brilliant Editor of The Saturday Review had lost his mind. What those critics didn’t understand was the ancient connections under-girding Cousins’ insights—and the growing circle of spiritual pioneers among serious scientists. By the 1980s, Harvard’s Dr. Robert Coles was publishing landmark studies of the moral and spiritual lives of children, complete with interpretive drawings—much as Bernie Siegel recommends to readers in a fresh way in this new book. Soon, Dr. Larry Dossey was writing about the relationship between faith and wellness, as well. In 1986, Bernie Siegel risked his own career by publishing his most important volume, Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients.

One key distinction in this new wave of scholars—including books by Coles, Dossey and Bernie Siegel—is that these experts are not selling any specific religious creed. They’re not “faith healers.” In fact, all of them, including Bernie Siegel, warn that some religious doctrines may actually be barriers to healing.


DAVID CRUMM: There are a lot of faith healers out there and I want to clearly distinguish your work, for our readers, as standing in a long tradition of serious, scientifically based inquiries into the healing power of spiritual disciplines. So—before we get to the fun stuff—let’s start with your critique of some religious leaders. For example, you’re outspoken in criticizing various popes from the 1800s to today for, all too often, condemning the newest medical advances out of hand. In your view, there is too much of a conservative backlash against scientific developments—coupled with an unfortunate tendency to say that suffering is the will of God.

DR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Let me use an interview with Billy Graham as an example. I remember this because his response was so striking to me. He was asked, “Does God want me to have cancer?” And Billy Graham’s first words were, “Not necessarily.”

DAVID: To be fair to Billy, he tells people that they need to take care of their bodies. He tells people that they should pray and follow a doctor’s advice—and he does both of those things himself. But your basic point is on target: Billy has strongly emphasized the importance of praying to God for healing—and he isn’t as clear as you are about the need to seek out the best in medical care.

BERNIE: Well, when Billy Graham was asked that question and the first words out of his mouth were, “Not necessarily,” I thought: That’s wrong! The answer should have been a clear, “No.” He should have said, “No, God doesn’t want you to have cancer.” In that interview, he went on to tell people that sometimes God uses disease to wake us up. And, that’s encouraging people to have that old guilt response to illness—the blame response. To me, that’s not what good religion should be telling people. We need to start by telling people that God built healing potential into everything. We need to say clearly: Disease is not a punishment.

DAVID: You’re right. There still is an over-emphasis on guilt and blame in many of the common religious responses to illness.

BERNIE: I look back to Maimonides, who gave us a lot of good advice. Here’s an example: Let’s say you go to your house of worship and, when the services are over, you walk into the parking lot—but you can’t find your car keys. Does that mean God wants you to walk home? No, most people don’t believe that. They go back and search everywhere for their keys. Well, Maimonides said the same thing about healing: “If you’ve lost your health—look for it.”


DAVID: You’ve explained that your study of religion and spirituality is not aimed at conversion or preaching—but is a part of your broad scientific inquiry into connections that can help people.

BERNIE: I always say I live by my experience, not by beliefs. I keep learning. I have studied religion to help understand the lives and the experiences of my patients. A sentence that changed my life was when a patient said to me: “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That got me started on this whole process of helping people learn how to live.

This is practical. I call this whole process: looking for common themes. If I discover something that’s helpful to a person, and then I encounter this same thing in someone else’s writings—perhaps in a novel or in the Bible or in some other writings—then I can see a larger connection. I am continually observing the world, continually reading, too. And in novels, plays, books, and images people are putting out into the world all of these things that they have observed about the world. When we can make connections in what we are observing, then we can begin to realize truths that are being spoken to us.

DAVID: When you and writers like Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey began publicizing these ideas, there were lots of detractors. Now, there’s a lot of research about the role of emotions and relationships in healing. In other words—today, you’re on what seems to be more solid ground with readers. Is that fair to say?

BERNIE: Years ago, remember, nobody thought that a support group could possibly help anyone. Now, we know that support groups truly do help people. Relationships benefit our health. Yes, there now is a lot of good research behind this. We’ve studied a lot of things that, when I started, nobody was advocating. For example, we know that, for many people, even having a dog in the house can positively affect your health.

We now have studies that show how loneliness affects genes and the control of our immune functions. So, we now know that loneliness is a factor in disease. When we begin making connections, it may not be science at that point—but we can do research over time and some of the connections we make may become science.

I talk about making the invisible visible. Years ago, Ernest Holmes wrote about this.

Here’s an example: From the Bible, we know that God speaks in dreams and images. Today, many people know that there is value in using images, including drawings and dreams, to learn more about what are bodies are saying to us. You may think that your body can’t speak to you—but it actually can speak to you when you go to bed at night and you dream. Your body can create many images for you. We know that, in this process, colors may have meaning. Images have meaning. One thing I love about this new book is that I was able to reproduce so many full-color drawings in the middle of the book. You can really see what I’m talking about in that section of the book on patients’ drawings.


DAVID: In your career as a pediatric surgeon, you often used techniques that I associate with Dr. Robert Coles and others—giving children a pack of crayons and asking them to draw pictures for you.

BERNIE: Drawings can reveal the truth for that person. I did a lot of children’s surgery and, yes, a child would say a lot to me through these pictures. We’ve got 70 full-color pictures in the book and I explain them. One thing I would ask a child is: Will you draw your home? Will you draw your family? One of the pictures in the book was drawn by a child with cancer. She draws this long sofa and her family is sitting there with arms wrapped around each other. We can see that there’s another space on the sofa—there’s room for the girl, but instead she’s drawn sitting on a chair, separate from her family. This child is saying, “I don’t get enough time with my family.”

I showed this drawing to her family and that made a big difference. They told me later: “Thank you for your help with that drawing, because we devoted a lot more time to her.” Using drawings often let me get in touch with inner wisdom. We have an intuitive, unconscious awareness of what we need, but often we’re not able to express it. This girl’s drawing told her family something very important about their relationship.


DAVID: You’ve got a whole section of your book called Laugh Out Loud. I think it’s one of the best portions of the book—in fact, it’s a good reason to buy this new book even if you’ve got other Bernie Siegel books already on the shelf. I really like the way you explain the importance of laughter and good humor in general. And, you point out that this isn’t just a matter of good intentions—this really can lead to improved health.

BERNIE: This is not beyond science. There is chemistry behind what happens within a person during laughter. When people are battling a disease, laughter helps.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines from that chapter in which you salute Norman Cousins: “In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins wrote a fascinating account of his self-induced healing-by-laughter from a diagnosed condition, ankylosing spondylitis. When his doctor gave him a 1-in-500 chance of recovery, Cousins checked himself into a hotel, watched Candid Camera tapes, and laughed, day after day. Choosing to use humor as his medicine, rather than react to his fear and do nothing, is the sign of an optimist—a survivor.”

BERNIE: I have made laughter a part of my therapy as a doctor for a long time. Imagine doing surgery on children every week, which was my specialty. I found that laughter was very distracting. When you laugh, you can’t be afraid. I did this in lots of ways. I would play nursery rhymes in the operating room and the whole room would relax because everybody in the room would regress as we listened.

DAVID: This kind of pioneering work you have pursued for so many years—it took a lot of courage. You and Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey—everyone in this field—weathered a lot of criticism along the way. But it’s a basic part of your own spiritual orientation that pushes you onward, right?

BERNIE: Here’s a workshop question I’ve used through the years: I ask people, “If you could be God for a day, why would you want to be God?” And some people will say: So I can do this. Or, so I can fix that. But the ultimate response? The best answer to my workshop question? It’s when people say: “So I can understand: Why?” That’s the ultimate question we need to keep asking: “Why?” That comes from the Baal Shem Tov and many other great spiritual teachers. We are here to live and learn—to keep asking: “Why?”

I just keep working with people and learning—and that’s why I like the word “potential.” We mentioned Ernest Holmes before and this comes through in his writing, as well. He asked the question in The Science of Mind: “What if Jesus was the only normal person who ever lived?” Of course, Holmes had to be smiling when he wrote that. He was writing about potential. We need to be helping people to reach their potential. We know that, when we give the human body the message that we really do want to live—that we want to restore injury and live—the results are amazing.

It’s so important to remember: When you’ve lost your health—keep looking for it.

Care to read more?

In our WeAreCaregivers section, this week, we’ve got a short excerpt from Bernie Siegel’s chapter ‘Laugh Out Loud.’ You’re sure to enjoy it!

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

Benjamin Pratt: Enough weeping? Try laughter! (Part 2)

Interactive Humor: The Broom, Part 2



In an earlier column, we challenged readers to—well, to laugh! Out loud. Tell jokes. Seriously, as a pastoral counselor, I have recommended laughter many times. There is an entire chapter on the importance of humor in my book, A Guide for Caregivers. If you care to read more about this, you’ll enjoy that earlier column explaining our Michelangelo and the Broom challenge. After posing the challenge, our whole ReadTheSpirit team spent a couple of weeks collecting proposed captions. And the winner of the caption contest is …

JAN JETT, a diaconal minister in the United Methodist Church, a Benedictine Oblate and a spiritual director. We asked Jan to tell our readers a bit about her life. She writes: “In 1996 I retired from Riley Hospital for Children, Indianapolis, IN, where I had directed the Child Life Program. After retiring, I led retreats and worked in a variety of positions in the United Methodist Church. Currently I am active in Contemplative Outreach and the practice of Centering Prayer. As a Benedictine Oblate I have many opportunities to serve, learn and grow. I also am a widow with two living sons, three loving daughters-in-law and three adult grandchildren who are moving toward success and contentment.”

She explains that her winning 4-word caption came to her because humanity, embodied in Adam, seems so darned complacent with life on an earth—when we all know the place is spiraling into a mess. God is pointing. God is speaking. God is handing a broom to Adam’s casually outstretched hand.

Jan now will receive an autographed copy of my book.

(NOTE: Feel free to share this image and caption with others. There are convenient blue-“f” Facebook buttons at top and bottom of this column. Or, use the envelope-shaped email icons.)

(Originally published in, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Benjamin Pratt: Had enough time weeping? Try laughter.

TODAY, our popular author and columnist Benjamin Pratt wants you to have some fun! His recent column about 50 years of marriage has been read by countless men and women around the world—and shared widely across a number of websites and Facebook and emails. One of the most common responses to that column from readers was: “Thanks for including humor in your advice for marriage!” Once again, Benjamin took your wisdom back to his keyboard—and now he invites you to share a new column far and wide.
And, this time, there’s a prize! Yes, this is a column about humor—but there really is a prize! Read on …

Interactive Humor: The Broom


“a time to weep, and a time to laugh”
Ecclesiastes 3:4

The Bible tells us: Jesus wept. It does not tell us he laughed.

But, it’s hard for me to imagine that this man who brought us a message of love, hope, and joy did not laugh often, even when surrounded by pain, misery and poverty. All we need to do is listen to Jesus’s parables to know he had a sense of humor. He dined with prostitutes and tax collectors and kept the table open for all. He brought together all the folks we call good and those we call bad—and called them the Kingdom of God.

A number of years ago, when driving north from Asheville, NC, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I visited the so-called Churches of the Frescoes where I was deeply moved by the paintings of Ben Long. Fresco art, which was practiced for centuries in Italy, is the art of painting on wet plaster. Powdered pigments, mixed with water, are applied to and absorbed by fresh lime plaster, actually becoming part of the wall. Ben Long, a native North Carolinian, apprenticed in Italy and returned to his home mountains to paint masterpiece frescoes such as, “St. John the Baptist,” “The Mystery of Faith” and “The Last Supper.”

But over the many years since I saw those frescoes, the painting most vividly fixed in my mind and heart is a painting created by one of Long’s students who also was working at the chapel site: Bo Bartlett, who now is a well-known painter in his own right. Bartlett’s image is: “The Laughing Jesus.” It was inspired by the story of a priest who had made a miraculous recovery from a stroke. The priest, while on his deathbed, had a vision of Christ laughing while his healing was taking place.

I love to laugh. Throughout much of our 50 years of marriage, my wife Judith and I have spent hours laughing with our friends Jim and Sandy. We play tricks on each other. They have deposited a decorated toilet bowl, filled with flowers, on our front porch to welcome us home from a trip. Then there was the 5-foot-tall stuffed flamingo, decorated for the 4th of July, that appeared on our porch.

Oh, we have reciprocated! One that makes us continue to laugh involves a broom! In the early days of our marriages, when we had young children and not one nickel to rub against another, we often vacationed at state parks and used one cabin for all seven of us. The first stay was at Hungry Mother State Park in south west Virginia in a very, very rustic cabin.

One couple would often take the children off for a couple of hours to give the other couple a chance for privacy. We left Jim and Sandy alone one morning as we trotted off with the kids. As we meandered along the road, we met one of the park attendants. We mentioned that we definitely needed a broom to sweep our cabin. Hey, we are innocent, right? A simple request, right?

Not our fault that the broom was delivered at, shall we say, a most awkward moment!

Oh, the laughter that broom delivery has brought down through the years. One year, at the time of Jim’s and Sandy’s wedding anniversary, they were in Florida visiting his mother. We called Jim’s mom and arranged with her to deliver a broom to them as an anniversary gift. She did it with great delight and much laughter.

So, it has happened again. The picture below came to us on our 50th anniversary. Laughter filled our hearts, and gratitude for all the years we have supported each other flowed back and forth. All four of us have been caregivers of our spouses or members of our extended family. Upon occasions, we have wept and felt the burdens and joys of that work. The burdens of caregiving has been lightened by the love and laughter we have shared.


I’m not going to tell you the caption that was attached to this silly painting when we first saw it. In fact, “our” caption may not even strike you as funny. My question to you, dear readers is: What funny caption can you add?

THE PRIZE: Craft your own caption and submit it either in the Comment section below. Or, email us at [email protected] We will select the most stellar and I will send the winner an autographed copy of my book, A Guide for Caregivers.

(This article also was published at the website of the Day1 radio network.)

A Blessing for your marriage (and how we made it 50 years)

The late poet Seamus Heaney wrote that his parents’ solid marriage was built upon “a love that’s proved by steady gazing, not at each other, but in the same direction.” (Read more about Heaney’s life and work here.) These days, millions of Americans are wondering what defines a marriage—and what makes good marriages work. Popular author and columnist Benjamin Pratt has spent a long time consulting with his wife Judith Pratt on what they have learned in their half century. And—don’t miss the blessing Benjamin offers at the conclusion of this column!

Love Is What You Go Through With Someone


Judith and I are in our 12th marriage.

To be a little more precise, we can demarcate 12 different movements to our 50-year marital dance. Each dance has been different with some, like the tango, filled with passion, and others gentle and orderly like the waltz. Oh yes, we’ve had turns of rock and roll, herky-jerky and the energetic swing—and even the crawl as our world slowed down.

Each marriage corresponds to major life transitions: being newlyweds, the birth of children, personal times of growth and struggle, new professions, deaths of parents, children moving away from the nest, aging, and, of course, illness and the tasks of caregiving. Each transition involved the basic marital functions of love, sex, children, careers, families, companionship and house-holding. And, each turn in the dance was dynamic, daunting and demanding.

We never claimed to be masters of the dance. We are always learning.


Fifty-four years ago, I met Judith.

As a very shy teenager who had dated very little, I remember our first encounter. An electric jolt went through my body and stunned me to silence. I translated the jolt as a confirmation that I had met the girl of my dreams.

It was nearly four months until we had our first date. I told you I was shy! Our first date was a part of my fraternity initiation process: I had to ask someone I had never dated to a dance. The horror of the evening was that I had not slept for 36 hours, was wearing a scratchy burlap bag under my shirt and tie, had just eaten 4 cloves of garlic and had a heavy dose of lilac tonic rubbed into my hair. Wasn’t I appealing?

My assignment that night: I was to return to the dorm with lipstick on my lips. On the way home, I asked her to paint my lips. She later confessed that she really wanted to kiss me. My interpretation of the jolt was confirmed.


Electricity has flowed in our relationship. Most often it has been positive but sometimes quite negative. The closest our marriage came to failing was during the tenth year. I was the founding pastor of the fastest growing church in Northern Virginia. Folks were fueling my foolish pride by predicting I would become a bishop. I averaged working 70-80 hours a week. I was so absorbed in my work that I was absent to my wife even when I was at home.

I had become full of myself!

Without rain, Virginia red clay becomes like concrete. There had been a six-week drought that summer. In September, our church gathered at a sun-baked park for fun, games and a picnic. I joined in a touch football game. I was running full speed to catch a pass when I tripped over a young boy’s foot.

I plunged toward the clay concrete, reaching out both arms to break the fall. The fall broke the radial heads in both of my elbows. For six weeks I was in two casts.

I instantly became like a dependent infant, except for being able to thrill my daughters by mimicking the Cookie Monster. I could lift the lid off the cookie jar on top of the refrigerator and extract a cookie, placing it on the edge. “Gulp! Coooookie Monster!” Fun. But, not a basic survival skill.

Truth be told, I could do nothing to care for myself. I could not dress, feed, or clean myself in any way. One parishioner drew a cartoon of me exiting a Men’s Room with my head turned back to say, “Thanks.” So, I turned to Judith for care. Considering the emotional-and-relational canyon between us at that point, it was not easy to close our intimacy gap. I had ignored her, so it made sense that she was not eager to care for me in my dependency. On more than one occasion she has confessed that she was tempted to cut more deeply while shaving my neck.

Slowly, but surely, the painful, humbling fall led us to tears, confessions, forgiveness and a new, much deeper love and commitment. I came to believe that it was God’s foot that tripped me and brought me down.

It was God who affirmed that love is what you go through with someone.


Occasionally, someone asks, “What is the key to making a marriage last for 50 years?”

I usually test their sincerity with a few dark quips: “Good Scotch;” “I always surrender;” “Long walks, very long walks;” or “Marriage is the commitment to share the same bedroom in which the temperature is never right.”

But, if I sense that the question is a serious inquiry, I will speak more openly and thoughtfully. I might open by saying that humor, which I just attempted, is basic to success. Not only humor that makes us laugh together, but the deeper understanding of humor helping us prevail against our fears and not letting us take ourselves too seriously.

Love is what you live through with someone. Marriage holds us together during our intimacy gaps. Marriage is the best alternative to aloneness and loneliness. Sustaining a good relationship means really being there for the other, being alert and hospitably present. It means listening to the other, not just with our ears but with our heart. It means responding to what we hear with compassionate action. It is soul engaging, emotionally and mentally energizing. It is the stuff of committed friendship. It is the dance of love, the stuff of life in communion and community. It’s common sense—and especially common decency.

We trust the old adage that marital partners are adversaries. There are some fundamental differences in each of us that will always impact our relationship. They are basic to who we are, why we risked marriage—and how we bless and irritate each other. These differences could have been the source of perennial warfare. But we chose to make them the creative irritants that spur on-going growth in each of us. Judith and I have chosen to understand that our differences are the grains of sand that irritate our oyster to develop and create a more beautiful pearl in the heart of each of us. We are not the same persons we were 50 years ago. We are better, wiser, more caring and creative persons because of each other.

We are in the 50th year of our marital dance because we are deeply respectful, grateful and tender toward each other. We believe in and trust each other. We, like all couples, have been critical, even contemptuous, of the other. But those times were short-lived and minor compared to the warm, affectionate, openness that has prevailed in our mutual dance.

Without hesitation, I can say that I have been a better marital partner because I daily pray the Discipleship Prayer, attributed to St. Francis. In it is the admonition to “seek not so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” This act alone orients any relationship in a positive direction.


When I conduct weddings, these days, I no longer deliver a homily. Instead, I share a Blessing of the Senses. Each time I speak the blessing it is personally crafted to include feigned touching of the couple’s eyes, ears, lips, hands and heart. I think it summarizes the ingredients necessary for a sustained, thriving marriage.

Here is one version of that blessing:

May God so bless your Eyes that you will see, not who you want to see, but truly see your partner for his/her gifts and graces, warts and wounds. May you celebrate with gratitude the gifts and joys, and understand and console the wounds and warts.

May God bless your Ears that you may not only listen but truly hear the voice, words, yearnings, needs and hopes of your partner.

May God so bless your Lips that your kisses shall be sweet and tender. And may the words crossing your lips be ones of honesty, hope, forgiveness—along with laughter. May your lips be guardians that halt words of hatred, vicious criticism and contempt.

May God bless your Hands to be instruments of comfort, strength and tenderness for the other.

May God bless your Heart that you may be a presence of comfort, joy, hope, forgiveness and vitality to your partner as well as others. May your Hearts be so filled with love that you will be instruments of peace to all.

Love each other as you have been loved.
Care for each other.
Bear one another’s burdens; share each other’s joys.
And, bring each other home.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Care to read more on similar themes?

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

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