Our Holiday Grab Bag of 12 Guilt-Free Gifts

shopping for a little something? Perhaps a last-minute gift for a friend—or, maybe someone gave you a little cash in a holiday card, and you’re going to choose something for yourself? The staff and friends of ReadTheSpirit suggest these 12 Guilt-Free Gifts.


Ed McNulty Visual Parables Journal on Faith and FilmFor more than 30 years, the Rev. Edward McNulty has been a national treasure. Since the 1970s, Ed has used his skills as both a Presbyterian clergyman and a professional Film Critic to write movie reviews, study guides and books that show readers how to explore films from a faith perspective. Each week, to this day, Ed “gives away” new film reviews in his department within Read The Spirit, called Visual Parables. But, today, we’re encouraging you to dig deeper into Ed’s wealth of resources: The way to receive Ed’s small-group study guides, each month, is to purchase a fully paid subscription to the one thing he sells: Visual Parables Journal. Please, support the work of this faithful film critic—and enjoy lots of uplifting fun with movies in 2014. How to get this: CLICK on the Visual Parables graphic at right; then, at Ed’s website, choose “Subscribe to the Full Journal.”


If you’re shopping for a gift that you can share with family, friends or a small group in your community—then, please, buy a copy of Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith.  Lynne’s book tells the true story of how different kinds of bread are connected with the spiritual traditions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Native Americans. She not only tells the sacred stories of these “Holy Breads”—she also provides delicious recipes for each bread. This will give you and your family months of inspiring eating—and it’s a great idea to use in either a New Year’s class or a Lenten-season small group at your church. How to get this: CLICK on this link, or CLICK on the Flavors of Faith book cover shown in the left margin of this webpage.


Bird on Fire Jane Wells websiteFaith-and-pop-culture expert Jane Wells is just releasing her newest inspirational book. As we discussed with Jane in a recent author interview, her new book, called Bird on Fire, taps into the phenomenal interest among teens and 20-somethings in science fiction and fantasy tales like The Hunger Games. This is an age range largely missing from most churches. However, as Jane says in our interview, the themes that are so compelling in these novels and movies are connected with major charitable campaigns in churches nationwide: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and freeing contemporary slaves. These themes also connect with inspiring Bible stories, which Jane explains in her book. Energize and welcome this missing age group in your congregation by starting a local group to discuss Bird on Fire. How to get this: CLICK on the Bird on Fire graphic to jump directly to our Bookstore; or click on this Interview link to read more about Jane and her book.  


Rodney Curtis-book-coversLongtime readers are familiar with columnist Rodney Curtis, known by the title of his first memoir, The Spiritual Wanderer. Since we started ReadTheSpirit online magazine, Rodney’s quirky columns have launched 1,000 laughs. What’s amazing is that his good humor continued—even as Rodney hit the direst challenges of our era: losing his job in a downsizing industry—and—discovering that he had life-threatening cancer. He has survived both with his attitude undimmed. In our recent interview with Rodney, he talks about how he manages to keep “laughing in the face of fear”—and to encourage his readers to do the same. There’s not a better, more-hopeful gift for someone who needs a shot of humor than buying one—or all three—of Rodney’s books. How to get this: CLICK on the Rodney Curtis book covers, above, to jump to our Bookstore. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Rodney and his remarkable work.


Rabbi Bob Alper Thanks I Needed That coverThere’s no storyteller like Rabbi Bob Alper, the world’s only full-time stand-up comic and practicing rabbi, whose hilarious routines are heard daily on the Sirius/XM clean comedy channel. His new book features 32 true stories from settings as far flung as The Tonight Show studio, the hills of Vermont, and a tiny Polish village. Readers meet a stained-glass artist whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore, a woman who attends services with her dog, a 5-year-old grief counselor and an elderly Holocaust survivor who discovers that he can speak about his lost sisters for the first time. Warm, touching stories that evoke laughter and tears—this is a perfect gift for you or a loved one in the depths of Winter. How to get this: CLICK on the image of the smiling boy from Bob’s book cover, above, to jump to our Bookstore.


Don Lattin book cover detail from Distilled SpiritsIf you happen to read this column before December 27, 2013, then author, journalist and religious historian Don Lattin is giving all of us a gift. He temporarily set the Kindle price at $1.99 for his fascinating book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. In April, we interviewed Don Lattin about this new book, which is an in-depth look at influences behind the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous and the spiritual connections between Bill Wilson, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. The 12-Step movement now is regarded as a historic breakthrough in the history of world religions—and Don’s book is a terrific read. We guarantee: You’ve never heard the true story he unfolds in this book. How to get this: CLICK on the Distilled Spirits book image to jump to Amazon. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Don and his remarkable work. Or, you can visit Don’s own website. (And if you’re reading this column after December 27—hey, the book is still a terrific read!)


Margaret Passenger's She and You and Me coverThe full title of Margaret Passenger’s new book is, She and You and Me: Finding Ourselves in the BibleMargaret’s long career spans three professions as: a high-school English teacher, a newspaper copy editor and a United Methodist minister. She and her husband, editor Henry Passenger, are longtime friends of ReadTheSpirit magazine and Books. Also, here in Michigan where our Home Office is based, the Passengers are very active in the interfaith network known as Michigan Communicators. Margaret agrees with us here at ReadTheSpirit in one pointed critique of inspirational publishing nationwide: Most readers of these books are women; yet more men than women are given opportunities to publish such books. Margaret spent many years working with small groups in parishes to perfect this book-length study of women in the Bible. We recommend it and encourage you to support Margaret’s work by ordering a copy. It’s a great choice for a New Year’s or Lenten small group discussion, because one of the central themes is: encouraging women today to take courage from the examples of biblical women. How to get this: CLICK on Maragaret’s book cover, at right, to jump to Amazon.

8. A Rare Story of Jesus as a Boy

Chris Stepien cover image from Three Days The Search for the Boy MessiahSpeaking of interfaith connections in publishing, we are impressed with the work of Chris Stepien, an independent author whose story appeared in ReadTheSpirit in June. His new book is called Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah. Like the Passengers (mentioned above), Chris is a long-time media professional who now is active in interfaith work. A devout Catholic and a father, Chris felt moved to explore the brief biblical account of Jesus as a boy getting “lost” in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though Chris admits that he isn’t a formally trained Bible scholar—he set out to research and write a novelized account of those experiences. We are impressed with Chris’s approach to this work. Using his professional talents as a writer and researcher, Chris sincerely is trying to build cross-cultural connections through his storytelling. We say: He’s setting a great example. Get the book! Read it! How to get this: CLICK on the “Three Days” image from Chris’s book cover to jump to Amazon.

9. Fran McKendree helps out with a song

Musician Fran McKendreeSinger/songwriter Fran McKendree is a good friend to our readers, through his regular sharing of stories and songs. Among his past columns in our online magazine: You can see and hear him in this story, which includes a video of Fran performing Times Like These. Then, in his column Let’s Go Fly a Kite, Fran described a retreat he designed involving kites. This autumn, he wrote about his involvement in the Awakening Soul project. Then, one more link: Many readers enjoyed this meditative chant in video form. Our message to all of our readers is: Get to know this talented and faithful musician! He travels the country working with church groups and peacemaking events. And, right now, he’s selling a Christmas carol (for a dollar) to help raise funds for a good cause. How to get this: CLICK on the image of Fran to jump to his website. (And if you’re reading this column after Fran is finished with the Christmas carol effort—hey, get to know him through his website! He’s always starting something new and inspiring.)

10. Learn about Native Americans in ‘Our Fires Still Burn’

Our Fires Still Burn documentary DVD image Audrey GeyerFilmmaker Audrey Geyer devoted years to producing the documentary, Our Fires Still Burn, about the contemporary lives of Great Lakes Indians. What inspires us about this film is that Audrey balances the stories she includes in her film so that she is honest about some deep wounds, including the campaign to force Indian children into boarding schools, but she also highlights bright sparks of renewed life, as well. Her film has been featured in public showings—as well as regional broadcasts on PBS stations. You may see Our Fires Still Burn showing up on a PBS affiliate near you in 2014. Right now, though, we are encouraging our readers to visit Audrey’s website, learn about her documentary, make people aware of the film—and, please, consider ordering a DVD. How to get this: CLICK on the image from Audrey’s film to jump to her website.

11. Don’t Forget the Caregivers!

We Are Caregivers dot Com bannerHelping the nation’s millions of caregivers is a major goal at ReadTheSpirit, spearheaded by WeAreCaregivers.com columnist Heather Jose. In fact, Heather recently wrote a column, called What do we give? If you’re reading this item and you’ve forgotten to think of a caregiver in your life at this time of year—go read Heather’s column and make a plan. We are urging readers, as 2013 moves into 2014, to bookmark http://www.WeAreCaregivers.com so you won’t miss the many inspiring and helpful columns Heather brings us, each week. She welcomes guest writers, as well, including Benjamin Pratt, Rodney Curtis and Paul Hile. Of course, we would love to have you look at our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore and support these writers by buying any of our half-dozen caregiving-themed books. And, if you’re thinking of organizing a caregiving ministry in 2014, we would love to hear from you! Heather occasionally makes appearances at events nationwide and she’s always looking for ideas to highlight in her columns. How to do this: CLICK on the blue Caregivers logo to visit Heather’s department. Or, email us at [email protected]

12. Join MSU in Celebrating American Diversity

MSU School of Journalism-100-Q-Americans-teamFinally, one of our proudest accomplishments is enabling the Michigan State University School of Journalism to launch a whole series of books helping in nationwide efforts to encourage “cultural competency”—the phrase commonly used today to describe educational efforts to break down cross-cultural bias. With coordination from MSU’s Joe Grimm, a veteran journalist and educator, MSU students first produced The New Bullying and quickly discovered that the book made a real impact in awakening adults to emerging forms of bullying among teens. Since then, Joe and his MSU teams of students have produced the first two volumes of what will be an extensive series of books on gaining “cultural competency.” Please, do your part to build healthier, more peaceful communities in 2014 by learning about the MSU project and buying these guides to use in your region. How to do this: CLICK on the image of MSU students to visit our most recent story about this pioneering project. You’ll find links there to purchase their guides.

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

‘Thanksgiving,’ a sample sermon about Abraham Lincoln


(Note from ReadTheSpirit: In this historic year of Lincoln remembrances—the Rev. Dr. Duncan Newcomer  is writing a series of columns about the legacy of our 16th president. Read more about Duncan at the end of this column. TODAY, Duncan provides a sample sermon about Abraham Lincoln, which we welcome you to share, use, discuss and even republish.)

Suggested Bible readings
Philippians 2:1-7

Abraham Lincoln in a reflective pose in 1861. Public domain photo held by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Abraham Lincoln in a reflective pose in 1861. Public domain photo held by Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

“This poor word”—that’s how Evelyn Underhill refers to “Thanksgiving” in her classic book Worship.

It’s true, isn’t it? A poor word.

What do we mean by “Thanksgiving”? Is it now just the meaningless name of a holiday for food, football and frenzied shopping? Just another annual trigger for stress and guilt? Who are we supposed to thank, anyway? And, for what?

And, the biggest question: Is the most frequently forgotten guest at our dinner tables—God?

I used to teach Family Medicine residents what they called “Behavioral Science.” One lesson was this: It is better not to tell patients, “Try to relax.” Trying to relax is a contradictory effort. “Just let yourself relax” might work better.

“Try to be thankful” suffers from the same kind of disappearing act: The harder we try, the less thankful we feel.

When Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 we got off on the wrong foot with the word “thanksgiving.” While I praise Lincoln for being a secular-religious prophet, one of the problems in translating religious sentiment into civil society is the language that is used. Thanksgiving in a synagogue, church or mosque means something that is hard to translate into society, even if it’s a great idea.

The word “thanksgiving” is a better verb than noun, but it really isn’t either. The word refers to an act: We give thanks. At my childhood dinners, oddly I thought, people were asked to “return thanks.” I wondered: Who took it? And, where were they hiding it? Was “thanks” the stolen goods needing to be returned before anyone is allowed to eat?

A new custom for our secular-religious time might be to ask people to bring an object to the Thanksgiving dinner table and to symbolically offer it up, to place it before us all, or even to give it away. Not exactly a sacrificial lamb or a first-born son, this would be a giving of thanks that fits the verb form of thanksgiving.

On the other hand, as is our custom, for a person to say words as a blessing may not mean what it could. We don’t often believe that someone has the power to bless us, to give us or a meal a blessing. I remember once being asked at a Thanksgiving table to “say the blessing” while Robert Penn Warren, our nation’s Poet Laureate, was sitting right across from me. I didn’t feel, as a young seminary student, that I could bless him, or anything near him, by giving my words. I feared, also, that I was the sacrificial offering.

Evelyn Underhill describes this poor word “thanksgiving” as an act in a holy place. It is a ritual act acknowledging the glory, the power and goodness, of the Creator. We are off on the wrong foot, it seems, if thanksgiving is about us. Ideally, this is a ritual act performed before the glory of God. It is, at least, about a higher power or a mystery that invites awe. A temple, a church, a mosque—a sacred place bigger than a house and home table—seems required.


At the core of thanksgiving is gratitude. Brother David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the heart of prayer. Our own value and worth is revealed in our feelings of being grateful. At a Thanksgiving meal or gathering, consider asking people to go around the circle and share what each is grateful for.

As these different stories of gratitude are voiced, a common feeling of gratitude forms. We are hearing inner stories that we treasure because they also represent our value and our worth—given as offerings as the stories are told. This practice encourages stories that are quite different from the typical heralding of our own powers and successes, for which we pretend to be thankful. Rather, we encourage stories that we humbly and honestly lay out side by side, building a common bond.

The King James translation of Psalm 90 invites such a practice: “Lord, thou has been our dwelling place in all generations. … We spend our years as a tale that is told. … So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

As the Psalmist indicates, our individual tales weave into a story of common destiny—moving from a shared origin to a shared journey for generations. Together, we move from individual thanksgiving toward a far larger story that makes the future, and our humility, possible.

To give thanks then is the opposite of pride in one’s self. It is a form of self-humbling that comes out of a full heart of gratitude. Somehow, filling up with gratitude empties us out of ourselves. Empty of ourselves, we seem held in one large … well, one large Something Else. You can name that mystery what you will.


This leads me to a story about the passage from Philippians and my relationship to Abraham Lincoln. This Thanksgiving I am filling up with gratitude for my life with Lincoln. It is making me thankful for, even to, Lincoln. Lincoln becomes an object of glory, of thanksgiving, for me. I’m not sure what to give—except more and more of my interest, attention, and the creativity of my responses.

I suppose I need to give thanks to God for giving me—for giving all of us—Lincoln. I start with my gratitude, which leads me to express thanks for the glory, the goodness, the greatness, of this one man. It is not that I see him as God or even as a god. But I do see the better angels of our nature so abundant in him that I am overwhelmed. The truth is, most of the people I know who read and write about him have this inner story and feeling, too.

Philippians 2:1-7 is a New Testament letter that is user friendly with Buddhism and with the mystic traditions that I know. It is about being of one mind, participation in the Spirit, and acting from humility, emptying yourself of yourself, as Jesus did. The word often used here is a Greek word, kenosis. Self-emptying.

Among Lincoln’s many values, it is his natural way of emptying himself that is the most astounding. He shows how such a spiritual quality has both personal and political power. You can be president and still be humble! Kenosis is pragmatic, for all its spirituality. As a boy, then later at the height of his power, and even as a soon-to-be-martyred president, Lincoln shed his ego self, that self we all have so much trouble letting go.

I love the story of big, strong, 13-year-old Abe Lincoln catching some of his friends—boys he grew up with—secretly making off with melons from his family’s melon patch. He easily could have beaten the boys and left them to nurse their bruises. Instead, he never stopped seeing these boys as his friends. He did startle them, but then he sat down among them—and helped them eat the stolen fruit!

At a moment when he could have vented his self-righteous power, he chose to share with mutual joy a common meal. The story is true to his nature and probably true to history. It could be seen as his first Thanksgiving meal. We see that same magnanimous nature brought to bear on the South at the end of the mighty war to restore the huge region of the Union that Southerners had tried to make off with. Lincoln never stopped seeing Southerns as fellow Americans and friends. Despite the war, they were not enemies, he insisted.

The biography of Lincoln is full of astonishing stories in which he moved beyond looking out for his own self interest—to look out for the interests of others, as Philippians describes: He emptied himself, seemingly every day in the final years of his life, and took on the form of a servant. His efforts changed the world: freeing slaves and establishing human equality as the theme of our national story. I am thankful that Lincoln remembered what America should be, re-imagined what America could become and then acted decisively to renew America.

Looking for a reason to feel awe at Thanksgiving? Try remembering how much we are all sons and daughters of his greatness to this day. I give thanks for Lincoln by reading and writing about him. Lincoln is my work, these days. I am full of gratitude that I get to feel close to his value and worth, his fulfilling humanity.

And, I am grateful for ReadTheSpirit and its readers who share with me in this expansion of self, this shared inner story, and the common destiny—one new story—made possible. I believe it is opening up a better future for all of us.



In 1999 Duncan earned a Doctor in Ministry in Preaching from the ACTS DMin program through the Chicago Theological Seminary. He has prepared various community resources, discussion starters and historical columns, which you can find in our extensive Abraham Lincoln Resource Page.

You are free to use, discuss, share and even republish this “sample sermon,” as long as you credit Duncan Newcomer and readthespirit.com online magazine.

Abraham Lincoln and American Values Resource Page


White House portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, completed in 1869 by George Peter Alexander Healy. (Image in public domain; you may repost this image.)

Abraham Lincoln was the only president faced with literally reuniting the United States. In that process, he redefined what American unity should mean for all of us. In charting new directions for the nation, Lincoln drew on his own hard-won wisdom, his political savvy, his moral code and also his own sense of theology. In his 1865 Second Inaugural, Lincoln pleaded with Americans to hold “malice toward none” and quoted the Gospel of Matthew: “Let us judge not, that we be not judged.”

THIS RESOURCE PAGE is  your easy guide to finding the most interesting material for your own personal reading—and for sharing with discussion groups or classes.



Many Americans across the U.S. call the annual period leading up to Thanksgiving the “Season of Gratitude.”

Grassroots efforts to promote a culturally and religiously diverse celebration under this inclusive name has been unfolding since 2013, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s declaration of the first annual Thanksgiving for Americans.

Here’s an example: The State University of New York College of Brockport chose “Season of Gratitude” as the name for its annual Holiday Helping Hand campaign (a major drive to collect resources for needy family). Brockport officials found Season of Gratitude more inclusive of Americans’ many different traditions.

Wondering what you will cook for your Thanksgiving dinner? There’s a Season of Gratitude Pinterest page with some yummy recipes.

5 TIPS ABOUT PREACHING ON ABRAHAM LINCOLN: Whatever you choose to say about our 16th president, Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomver provides an overview of key themes to keep in mind while preaching. He debunks the myth that Lincoln didn’t like preachers. (Lincoln loved them.) And, based on his many years of teaching and writing about the 16th president, Duncan shares insights into capturing the great man’s message.

‘THANKSGIVING,’ A SAMPLE SERMON ON LINCOLN: Duncan Newcomer also provides this sample sermon with a more focused Thanksgiving message, drawing on themes from the Bible and from Lincoln’s wisdom.

‘CAPTAIN IN THE STORM,’ SAMPLE SERMON ON LINCOLN: Duncan Newcomer provides a masterful sermon on the life and legacy of Lincoln near the occasion of the holiday he inaugurated: Thanksgiving. As you read this sermon, you may also want to read our texts of Walt Whitman’s two powerful tributes to Lincoln: O Captain! My Captain! (Whitman’s most popular poem in his own lifetime and a partial inspiration behind Duncan’s text) as well as Whitman’s longer When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.

WHAT WOULD LINCOLN SAY ABOUT AMERICAN VALUES TODAY? Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer explores Lincoln’s life and writing on the 10 core values documented in Dr. Wayne Baker’s new book United America.

BEST BOOKS on ABRAHAM LINCOLN & THE CIVIL WAR: ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer bring you recommendations of books that will warm the heart of any history buff. What’s more, the reviews themselves are full of intriguing details about the era. Enjoy!

PRAYER FROM LINCOLN FOR THANKSGIVING: Drawing on the words of our 16th president, we present this prayer you can share. In Lincoln’s words, it calls again for unity in our all-too-divided times.

LINCOLN’S PROCLAMATION OF A NATIONAL THANKSGIVING: We provide the entire text of Lincoln’s moving 1863 proclamation, plus we explain the lobbying effort of influential journalist Sara J. Hale.

See the Video! IMPORTANCE OF THE PROCLAMATION: Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer offers a short video—which you are free to share with others—explaining how the Thanksgiving proclamation reflects Lincoln’s most important values.


HISTORIAN STEPHEN PROTHERO PUTS LINCOLN IN PERSPECTIVE: This in-depth interview with Dr. Stephen Prothero explains more about the genius of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and his declaration of the first national Thanksgiving.

JIM WALLIS ON LINCOLN: Jim Wallis’s book, On God’s Side, shows the Lincoln Memorial on its front cover and in this in-depth interview with Jim, he talks about the importance of Lincoln’s vision of a common ground in America.

LINCOLN, A COMPLEX MAN OF FAITH: Many writers have tried to explain Lincoln’s relationship to religion. This column is a fascinating overview of the historical evidence by Edward McNulty, the noted faith-and-film writer. McNulty prepared this historical column to accompany his film review of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, Lincon.

LINCOLN’S SECOND INAUGURAL ADDRESS: We have the entire text of the address, plus we briefly explain the historical context—and we have the Bible references on which Lincoln drew when writing this message that includes the famous line “with malice toward none.”

LINCOLN’S BEARD: In 2010, columnist Stephanie Fenton posted this look at the 150th anniversary of the little girl’s letter that inspired Lincoln to grow his beard.

‘WHEN LILACS LAST IN THE DOORYARD BLOOMED’: You’ll find the entire text of Walt Whitman’s haunting elegy, penned after Lincoln was killed, plus related links.


LINCOLN & MELANCHOLY COLUMN: After five years at the helm of the OurValues project, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker looked back at readership patterns and discovered this column about Lincoln’s “melancholy” was an all-time favorite. That was part of a week-long OurValues series on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

DUNCAN NEWCOMER AND ‘LINCOLN LEGACY‘: The popularity of that early 2013 series of Emancipation columns led us to invite Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer to write an entire week-long series on the “Lincoln Legacy.” That wide-ranging series includes one unusual column comparing Lincoln to Marilyn Monroe. Duncan also helped to write this fascinating column about the changing nature of Lincoln’s face throughout his presidency.

SECOND GREATEST PRESIDENT: In 2012, OurValues also reported on a Gallup Poll ranking Lincoln as America’s second greatest president out of 44.


BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS: Daniel Buttry’s inspiring book is packed with profiles of courageous peacemakers from around the world. Included in that book are stories about abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Thomas Clarkson and other heroes crusading for racial equality throughout history.


LINCOLN, THE STEVEN SPIELBERG MOVIE: Faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty not only reviews the film—he also provides discussion questions for your personal reflection or small group.

LINCOLN AND LES MISERABLES: Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer prepared this much-discussed column describing Lincoln’s personal connections with Victor Hugo and the similarities in themes between the president’s life and Hugo’s famous novel. Start with Newcomer’s column and then you’ll want to follow the link to the closely related column written by Edward McNulty about the best film versions of Les Miserables.

PBS’s THE ABOLITIONISTS: Starting long before the Civil War, this terrific three-hour miniseries tells the story of the moral and religious campaign that culminated in the Civil War. Our review explains why everyone should see this series—and why the film works well in sparking small-group discussion.

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


Season of Gratitude celebrates 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving declaration: Please, come to this table with us!

Season of Gratitude IFLC logo

Click this logo for Season of Gratitude to visit the main IFLC resource page that explains how to organize a local event. (NOTE: That IFLC page opens with news of the IFLC’s signature Season of Gratitude event, a banquet. Then, scroll down to find additional small-group resources you are free to use wherever you call “home” across the U.S. or around the world.)

On this anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s enactment of what is now our annual Thanksgiving holiday, many of us feel it is time to redefine the holiday to ensure that all Americans can be thankful for the diversity of peoples who are now united on these shores. Under the phrase, Season of Gratitude, and the logo of a beautiful autumn tree, we are calling for Americans to talk about our gratitude for such a diverse nation.

Lincoln pointed us in this direction when he defined a new kind of American Thanksgiving “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.” The idea of branding a national holiday was audacious for an embattled president presiding over just half of a war-torn nation. This was long before modern media would allow Norman Rockwell to redefine Thanksgiving in 1943. (That’s when his painting of a turkey dinner, Freedom from Want, was splashed across the Saturday Evening Post in the midst of another great war.)

Lincoln did a remarkable job 150 years ago! In his final years, Lincoln’s vision of America was prophetic—his words honed to a razor’s edge. By November 1863, Lincoln’s thinking about our nation was like a diamond, compressed into the 270 words of the Gettysburg Address. A month before that battlefield speech, in October 1863, we can see that he was reaching that point of clarity when he issued his landmark Thanksgiving proclamation. Lincoln and his Secretary of State Seward took almost 500 words to describe their unique calling to “the whole American People.” Thanksgiving could begin the reformation of a compassionate union with special care for the nation’s most vulnerable.

SEASON OF GRATITUDE is a pioneering invitation to grassroots communities everywhere—to congregations, book clubs, schools, libraries and civic organizations. While it’s true that Americans fondly remember the Pilgrims and Indians gathering around a table, the annual holiday we now celebrate only began in 1863. In November, Americans will hear a lot about the 150th anniversary of this beloved holiday. From network TV to local newspapers and websites, everybody is going to be buzzing about this sesquicentennial.


This idea arose in a regional interfaith council that is rapidly becoming a leader in innovative programming to unite healthy, diverse communities. In the Alban Institute’s Congregations magazine, Martin Davis profiles the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC) and concludes: “The IFLC blends and shapes the variety of religious life in ways that move everyone forward with integrity, and a commitment to respecting and listening to others. It’s what the beloved community is all about.”

CLICK ON THE TREE LOGO to visit the IFLC’s resource page for Season of Gratitude. When you visit that page, you will find the program described for the IFLC’s regional audience in southeast Michigan.

NOW, WE WELCOME YOU: In partnership with ReadTheSpirit online magazine, the IFLC is extending this idea to you—and to everyone nationwide. Please, go to the IFLC website and download the three Guides that outline events you are welcome to host. There are two basic approaches to organizing your local group: Host a Salon or discussion group; or host a community Meal or food-related event. The IFLC also provides a free, downloadable Discussion Guide to Lincoln’s inspiring Thanksgiving Declaration 150 years ago.


FIRST, THIS GREAT IDEA IS—FREE: First and foremost, this is a wonderful resource provided free of charge. If you have been looking for a fresh idea to energize your community, here are resources already developed for you.

YOU CAN SHINE A SPOTLIGHT ON YOUR COMMUNITY: If you organize an event along the guidelines provided by the IFLC, you will shine a spotlight on your community. In Michigan, where the IFLC is based, the IFLC will add your community’s event to a list of regional events the IFLC will be promoting throughout the autumn season. Elsewhere in the U.S., ReadTheSpirit magazine will include your event in our ongoing coverage. That’s a rare and valuable invitation! You’re performing a good deed in organizing a welcoming Season of Gratitude event in your community, plus you’re bringing attention to your group and—most importantly—your participation along with many others will be a sign of hope, hospitality and kindness in a time when diversity often is associated with conflict in news headlines.

Email us with news about your plans: [email protected]


Click on the cover to learn more about this book that combines inspiring stories with wonderful traditional recipes.

Click on the cover to learn more about this book that combines inspiring stories with wonderful traditional recipes.

Visit our easy-to-use Abraham Lincoln Resource Page to find dozens of online columns and resources. We will keep that Resource Page throughout the coming year as more Lincoln-anniversary events unfold.

This June 2013 book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, has been identified by the Season of Gratitude organizing team as a recommended resource for communities who want to host food-related events this fall. The book shares inspiring stories about breads that define and unify many of the world’s religious cultures, including American Indians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Each chapter includes authentic recipes you can bake yourself—or with friends. Your community could organize a weekly series, inviting participants to divide up baking these breads and leading the weekly discussion about the related stories.

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS and FRIENDSHIP & FAITH: Visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore for many more resources your group may want to read, enjoy and discuss this fall. More new books will be added this summer and autumn. Right now, ideal choices for Season of Gratitude include Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers, and the WISDOM women’s guide to making new friends Friendship & Faith.

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



Shavuot: Festival connecting harvest with the giving of the Torah

PLEASE ENJOY this sample chapter from Debra Darvick’s This Jewish Life, which tells about the season of Shavuot. Click the book cover image to learn more about her complete collection of stories.

All souls stood at Sinai, each accepting its share in the Torah.
Alshek. q Ragoler, Maalot HaTorah

This Jewish Life cover in 3D

CLICK this cover to learn more about Debra Darvick’s popular collection of real-life stories, THIS JEWISH LIFE: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy.

While there is no Biblical link between the Shavuot holiday and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Talmud does draw a connection between the two. The rabbis calculated the dates of the agricultural festival of Shavuot and the time of the Revelation and deemed them to be one and the same. This link enabled the rabbis to bring new relevance to an agricultural holiday at a time when many Jews were living in urban areas.

Shavuot, literally “Festival of Weeks,” is so named because it occurs seven weeks and one day after the beginning of Passover. Shavout is also called Chag Habikurim, Festival of the First Fruits, and Chag HaKatzir, Harvest Festival. These names reflect the holiday’s origin as the time marking the end of the spring wheat harvest. The 50 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot are called the counting of the omer, omer being a unit of measure. In Temple times, on the second day of Passover, the priests would offer up for sacrifice an omer of wheat, to mark the start of the seven-week wheat-growing season.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

Many communities hold a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night study session that enables those present to prepare spiritually for the morning’s service, when the Ten Commandments are read. During the recitation of the Ten Commandments, the congregation stands, thus symbolically receiving them, as our ancestors did at Sinai.

Ruth’s Role

The Book of Ruth is included in the Shavuot morning service for several reasons. Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi, was such that she converted to Judaism. By consequence of that conversion and her subsequent marriage to Boaz (their court- ship is said to have taken place during Shavuot), Ruth became the ancestor of King David, who, according to the Talmud, was born and died on Shavuot.

This year for Mother’s Day, give the gift of … listening

Tea time for two a photo by Christian Kadluba for Wikimedia CommonsQuestions
Left Unasked;
Left Untold


My 7th-grade cooking teacher admonished us, “Get those recipes from grandmother, girls; she could be dead tomorrow!”

We laughed.

Now I understand what she was talking about. A few months ago, I realized I had outlived my mother. She was only 63 when she died. That didn’t seem so young at the time, 28 years ago. Now I know she left us way too soon. I think about her often, but especially on her yahrtzeit, the anniversary of her death. On the Jewish calendar, it is the 11th of Iyar, which this year is April 21. The year she died, it was May 13, which was also Mother’s Day.

My mother and I didn’t have a particularly chummy relationship when I was growing up. As the oldest of three children, I was the trouble-maker, the rebel, the big mouth. It seemed we were always at odds. Things improved after I left for college and then when I married at 23. In many ways, my experience echoed that of Mark Twain, who wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

Despite the friction, my mother and I were always close in the sense that I never failed to let my parents know what I was doing. In the pre-Internet and cellphone days, when making or receiving a long-distance call was an event, that meant writing actual letters several times a week from summer camp and from college. In return, I would get regular letters from home.

My mother was a great storyteller, but she was very matter-of-fact about the stories she told. “My mother died when I was 6,” she said, of rectal cancer. As children, we just accepted this. Only when it was too late—when she was gone, and my own children grew to be 6 and older—did I want to ask her the important questions: How did you feel when your mother died? What do you remember about your mother? What did you miss about not having a mother?

Her father remarried when Mom was 12, and she always called her stepmother, my grandma, “Mama.” So I never asked her: How did you feel when your father remarried? Was it hard to get used to a new mother? How did your older sister—the one who taught you everything a young girl needed to know when you were growing up—feel about a new woman in the house?

She must have wanted to ask her own mother similar questions. Mom often told us how her father had left Poland for America months before the rest of the family. Before my grandmother joined him, her oldest daughter, 8, died of scarlet fever—and my mother was born. How did her mother bear it? How did she find the courage to tell her husband, when they were reunited, “We lost one, but look, I’ve brought you another one”?

We hear our parents’ stories so often we become bored by them. They become so much a part of us that we don’t think to ask about the missing details, which we might ask of any stranger telling the same tale. Only when they’re gone do we realize how much we forgot to ask.


Bobbie Lewis is a veteran writer, editor and communication consultant. Her website is www.write4results.com; she has a recipe blog: www.bobbiesbestrecipes.wordpress.com. This summer, Bobbie will become a more regular contributor to ReadTheSpirit—watch for her columns in June.

Lenten Journey: Past Easter, Jesus waits … with breakfast

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys
Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

Every year, as I walk the Lenten pilgrimage I am reminded of breakfasts prepared over charcoal in a remote farm community in Cuba where our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission Team was working along side our Cuban brothers and sisters to build a retreat facility for the emerging Cuban Methodist Church. It was in that setting that my hungry, empty soul was filled as if by Jesus who also prepared a breakfast over a charcoal fire for his despairing disciples. I am deeply grateful for the compassion from a community filled with Grace who fed my soul.
Gracias Senor!

In the early 1990s, Jesse Jackson personally confronted Fidel Castro with his abuse of Christians. Castro publicly apologized opening the doors for suppressed faith groups to come out of hiding and grow. By 1998, the time of my first trip, the Cuban Methodist Church had grown from 2,000 to more than30,000. Other Christian denominations and Jewish communities have grown at great speed. Within the last year, the Cuban government has asked our UMVIM teams, which have averaged one team a month, to come more often.

Perhaps the rapid growth is because their faith was a light the darkness could not overcome, an underground light much like a smoldering fire that lingers unnoticed until the firefighters have left the scene, whereupon it erupts into flames.

It is a strange irony that Genesis begins with darkness and the last of the four Gospels, John, ends in darkness—Genesis1: 1-5 and John 21: 1-14. Genesis tells us that before darkness there had never been anything other than darkness; it covered the face of the deep. At the end of the Gospel of John, the disciples go out fishing on the sea of Tiberias in the dark night! They have no luck. Their nets are empty. Then they spot somebody standing on the beach. They don’t see who it is in the darkness. It is Jesus.

All it took to break the darkness of Genesis was God’s word, “Let there be Light!” Amazing—beyond our imagination! But the darkness of John is broken by the flicker of a charcoal fire in the sand. Jesus has built a charcoal fire and he is cooking fish for his old friends. Breakfast! The sun is rising. All that we need to know about overcoming our own darkness may be found in those two scenes.

The original creation of light is so extraordinary that most of us cannot fathom it. Breakfast cooking on the beach is the opposite. It is so ordinary that we are prone to ignore it.

God’s creation of Light to overcome the darkness is not what pulls most of us to faith. It is too exceptional. So, a small spark was lit to draw us. Jesus sheltered a spark with his cupped hands and blew on it to make enough fire for a breakfast. Very few of us will come to God because of our interest in creation. We are much more likely to come because of the empty feeling in our hearts and stomachs.

Nearly every morning while working in Camp Canaan in Miller, Cuba, I was reminded of these scriptures. We awoke in the pale early morning light before the sun arose. Then, like the dawn of creation, the rising sun filled the sky with a golden ball of fire. As we watched the sunrise, the smell of breakfast being cooked over an open charcoal fire drew us toward the morning table.

I wasn’t sure why I went to Cuba. I felt called to go but it was a call I resisted. It scared me. It was out of my comfort zone. I couldn’t even speak Spanish! I responded to a pilgrimage I needed to take. I went to attempt to heal something in my hungry, empty soul. I hoped and prayed that if I loved and served in a new way my hungry, empty soul might be filled. Every morning two women cupped their hands and blew on a spark to start a charcoal fire for preparing breakfast. It was the love and compassion of colleagues in a grace filled community, eating breakfast together, working for others who loved us in return that filled the dark empty place in my soul. They loved me. I loved them. We worked in community, and Jesus brought light into the darkness of our lives and the lives of those we served. God healed my hungry, empty soul through the ones I went to serve—with charcoal, a compassionate community filled with Grace, in Cuba.


Originally posted at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

This column also was posted at the website for the Day1 radio network.