In ‘Chicken Scratch,’ veteran writer Ann Byle invites us to join her creative flock

Chickens roaming among bushes in the back yard of the Rev. Joel Walther’s parsonage some years ago.

Are you ready to take the next step in your creative life?

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

What’s your role in the flock?

Ann Byle with one of her chickens.

One thing I’ve learned from watching the chickens raised in our family is: Some may look alike but chicken personalities vary widely, so we can’t always anticipate what they’ll do. Chickens can surprise us; people can surprise us; and we can surprise ourselves. That’s one of the helpful insights in journalist Ann Byle’s new book, Chicken Scratch: Lessons on Living Creatively from a Flock of Hens.

A second helpful insight—and one I’ve taught myself in seminars and workshops through the decades is this: If you want to create—then create. You’re not a writer unless you write. If you want to be a good writer, you’ll write something every single day. And, in a wide variety of ways—sometimes funny and sometimes downright blunt—that’s another essential lesson in Byle’s book.

As simple as it sounds, that’s the first step toward a creative life: You have to start creating and, as Ann puts it, as you start, “Don’t worry about mistakes.” If you’re counting with me, that’s a third valuable “take away”—the creative life involves lots and lots of mistakes. Don’t be discouraged by disappointments; they’re part of the process. Keep going!

So, at this point, you probably realize a fourth important truth about this book: This is not guidebook on how to raise chickens in your yard. This book is about how a nationally known journalist and expert on creativity drew practical and sometimes surprising lessons from the chickens in her backyard. When you open her book, she’s up-front about her goals:

My dream for Chicken Scratch is that it inspires you to take the next right step in your creative life, and to move ever forward. It could be a new casserole recipe, a gorgeous oil painting, a better way to perform a lifesaving surgery, a new piece of music, a new children’s book. The world needs your creativity, needs your dreams, needs the very thing you dream of doing. Please, go forth and create—and maybe my little coop will inspire you as they have me.

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

How do we know that Ann Byle has authority in these areas?

Although her byline may not be a household name, she is well known in our professional field of publishing about religious and cultural diversity. Her substantial background as a journalist includes regular reporting for Publishers Weekly (PW) magazine about new books coming out on faith, spirituality and religion. She’s a media veteran who understands what’s popular with readers in this genre that rests primarily on inspiration: Will readers walk away from books feeling better than when they started reading?

As you read Chicken Scratch, you’ll realize that Byle has carefully planned each of her short chapters so that they are packed with ideas, questions for reflection, practical tips and even lists of other resources she recommends.

If you want to explore the creative capacities in your life, this is a book-length toolbox you’ll be pleased to own and open.

‘Touch-points on Faith’

Because I have never raised chickens myself, I invited my son in law, the Rev. Joel Walther, who directs the office of human resources for the United Methodist church in Michigan, to read Byle’s book and help us with our Zoom interview. Before his pastoral career began, Joel had managed a farm in Maine and, during his first years in ministry, he raised chickens in the backyard of the parsonage.

“I think this book is a delightful way to reflect on creativity from the perspective of chickens,” Joel said as we began our conversation with Ann on Zoom. “As I read your book, I found myself thinking about my own chicken stories from the years we raised chickens. Then, as a pastor, I also appreciate the touch-points on faith throughout this book. At one point, you remind us that Peter’s symbol became a rooster, because he denied that he knew Jesus three times before a rooster crowed. You also remind us of the famous passage in the Gospels when Jesus says he wishes he could gather his people under his wings like a mother hen.

“So, yes, I really enjoyed this book,” Joel summed up. “Chickens are a great place to jump off into lots of learning and teaching opportunities.”

“I very much agree,” I said. “And one of the most important lessons you draw in the book is that, like raising chickens or any livestock really, this requires daily practice. You can’t occasionally dabble in raising chickens or any other animals, right? It’s a daily commitment. And you can’t fully develop a creative pursuit without discipline.”

“I’m glad you’re pointing this out. It’s so important,” Ann said. “Way too many people don’t take their creative endeavors seriously enough. For example, people think of writing as a gift that’s always waiting—like a faucet that you can turn on any time and these things just flow out of you. Yes, writing may be a gift that you have, but you have to treat that gift seriously. You have to work at it.”

“It’s one of the first things I teach in classes about writing,” I told Ann.

She nodded across the Zoom screen. She said, “Having worked for a newspaper for many years, we learn that you don’t have the luxury of only writing when you feel like it.”

“I like the way you explain the challenges—and the mistakes we’ve all made along the way,” Joel said. “Raising chickens isn’t like raising a puppy. We’ve done both and we know. Chickens are different.”

“You’re right,” Ann said. “Chickens are livestock. The goal with chickens is not to have them curl up with you on the couch. They’re quite independent. They can fend for themselves most of the time—but you’ve got to pay attention everyday.”

“And sometimes there are setbacks, even tragedies,” Joel said. “I remember when we lost our first chicken because it literally chose to cross the road in front of our house. The other chickens did learn to avoid the road, after that, but there are lots of challenges—from cars driving by to predators that eat chickens. This is quite a commitment.”

“It is,” Ann said. “Chickens want to do their own thing, but every day you’ve got to be sure they’re safe and warm and have water and food. In the great scheme of things, chickens are not terribly difficult to raise—but you quickly learn that what you get out of raising chickens depends on what you put into this on a daily basis. And the same it true of creativity.”

‘Plus, this is just fun.’

Both Joel and Ann, who is active in her own congregation, said they can see this book as popular with small groups, perhaps discussing parts of the book over a series of weekly sessions. Those discussions could be within congregations—or in secular settings like a local library. Ann’s expressions of her faith in some passages of the book are within the context of a larger community conversation.

“I definitely could see people discussing this book in small groups—because it fits with a theme I always emphasize,” Joel said. “One thing I try to teach in my own community, especially in my church, is creativity. So for me this book is a perfect marriage of what I know about raising chickens and the challenges of the creative life. Plus, this is just fun—this book is fun.”

Ann said, “Churches would do well to have more fun and I appreciate that about my own church now—we do know how to have fun sometimes.”

We all agreed that one of the first reactions people will have to Chicken Scratch is: A big smile.

You will learn a few things about fostering creativity. You’ll feel encouraged if you already are a creative person. You’ll learn a lot about chickens. And, when you’re done, you’ll have a list of creative ideas to explore and lots of other recommended books to consider reading next.

“I hope people walk away inspired to tap into that dream they’ve always had,” Ann said at the end of our Zoom conversation. “It doesn’t have to be a big dream. It doesn’t have to be writing a whole novel or painting a big painting—but everybody has something that they love and they wold love to do more often—or they would like to start. Even if it’s just putting a new spice in a recipe or using a different kind of yarn when you’re knitting, I hope they come away from this book with the courage to try something new and creative.”


Care to learn more?

GET THE BOOK: It’s available in hardcover and Kindle versions from Amazon.

VISIT ANN ONLINE: The best starting place is her website, Many of our ReadTheSpirit readers are professionals and community leaders who are looking both for fresh ideas as well as the work of other talented professionals. If that sounds like you, then don’t miss the section of Ann’s website labeled AB Writing Services, where Ann outlines the many professional ways she has worked with clients over the years. You might want to remember her, if you or your community group needs a professional writer or editor. You might also want to take a look at her Events page, which includes a box you can use to sign up for her free newsletters.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NATURAL WORLD: Our online magazine regularly publishes stories about the connections between faith, spirituality and the natural world. In a May Cover Story, we featured popular author Barbara Mahany talking about her new release, The Book of Nature. If you are interested in Ann Byle’s book, we can guarantee you’ll also enjoy Barbara Mahany’s writing.


‘Sit in the Sun, And Other Lessons in the Spiritual Wisdom of Cats’ is Jon M. Sweeney’s Tour de Feline


“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
Often attributed to the Buddha


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

After Jon M. Sweeney’s more than 40 books on faith and spirituality, his readers around the world have noticed a curious twist: Five of his most recent books are about cats—and, now, it’s a total of six with the April 2023 release of what amounts to his Tour de Feline, a book called Sit in the Sun, And Other Lessons in the Spiritual Wisdom of Cats.

The book is dedicated to the nine cats who have shaped his life, to date. In the course of 17 chapters, we meet these furry gurus along with more than 50 other human saints and sages.

As a well-known journalist, author and teacher about his Catholic faith, Sweeney takes seriously the concept of “vocation,” a term that comes from the Latin “to call” or “to summon.” (For more on vocation, you may want to look back at last week’s cover story about Father Ed Dowling, who helped to shape the AA movement and who also believed strongly in identifying one’s vocation.) You can learn more about Jon Sweeney’s vocation in his new book that has taken this surprising turn: After dozens of more sober books about saints, theology and other spiritual themes—Jon finally felt his life-long feline companions “summoning” him.

Jon first answered this call with a fanciful children’s book about a Roman street cat named Margaret who finds a home at the Vatican. Then, he kept that popular series rolling through five volumes until he concluded that series in 2021 with a prequel to the Margaret saga, titled Before Margaret Met the Pope, a Conclave StoryThen, inspired by the warm reader response to those books—and suddenly finding himself isolated with his cats by the pandemic—he launched into his Magnum Felis Catus aimed at bringing adults along for the ride in his cat’s eye spiritual adventures.

Cats Crossing a Line?

In our interview this week about his new book, Jon said, “I think I crossed a line with the Pope’s Cat series—and maybe it was just a line I crossed in my own imagination—but I think in some real sense I discovered that I was willing to do work that some of my readers might think is—well—” and Jon paused as he searched for the right word before settling on—”well, some of my readers of the earlier books might think these books about cats are frivolous.”

“They’re playful. They’re humorous. They’re wise and winsome,” I countered. “But they’re not frivolous.”

“I like the words ‘playful’ and ‘humorous,’ and that’s why this transition was kind of a big deal for me as a writer and editor. I’m human like everybody else and I consider what people are thinking about me. I’m a writer with an audience I care about serving. For a lot of years, readers followed me through books that are serious—sometimes spiritually earnest and sometimes scholarly rigorous—so when I decided to write the first in what became the Pope’s Cat series, I realized that I was throwing that reputation for seriousness to the wind to some extent. Then, after I had crossed the line with that series, and seeing the response I was getting, I was able to cross another line into writing Sit in the Sun.”

I said, “That’s certainly true. You’ve crossed the line into some truly playful suggestions to your readers. For example, I don’t think readers can try your Chapter 2 spiritual suggestion to actually purr like a cat while praying and not chuckle—or at least smile.”

Breaking Down Barriers in Meditation

In Sit in the Sun, Sweeney wants readers to fully embrace what may seem more like a Buddhist approach to breaking down barriers in our daily meditations by not taking oneself too seriously. In Chapter 4, he urges readers to embrace a cat-like freedom to sometimes look foolish.

He calls this Chapter 4 advice: “A Cat Practice.” That page begins: “Be foolish, just a little bit. You can do it. Practice foolishness. Maybe for you that means walking backwards down your sidewalk, around your block. The practice is not meant to be an exercise in feeling insecure or unsafe, but, rather, a way of discovering a new vision. … Or try this—a practice that has helped me over the years. Mess up your hair and then leave it that way for at least an hour. … How do you feel when something about you is a little unkempt, playful, wild?” (Again, if you’ve read last week’s story about Father Ed Dowling, you’ll see a connection here about appearance and deeper truths.)

If you are curious to know more about what “a Buddhist approach to breaking down barriers” means: In preparing for this cover story about Sweeney’s new book, I pulled off my shelf two of Buddhist writer Geri Larkin’s best sellers: Close to the Ground and The Chocolate Cake SutraTo appreciate another dimension of Jon’s new book, readers could embark on a parallel reading with either of those books by Geri. The journeys lead to many similar spiritual adventures.

The Consensus of the Commonplace

There also is a clear consensus in comparing Geri’s and Jon’s writing—and a third new spiritual memoir we recently wrote about by Barbara Mahany, The Book of Nature. In our cover story about Barbara’s book, Barbara and I talked about the centuries-old tradition of the “commonplace” or we might say the spiritual practice of “commonplacing.” For Barbara, that amounts to literally copying and assembling memorable citations, valuable bits of wisdom, until they begin to form a community of insights she can share in a book like her new The Book of Nature.

For Jon Sweeney, that “commonplacing” dwells more in his library and his expansive memory from decades of research, writing and teaching.

In our interview, I said, “I actually made a chart on a legal pad of everyone readers will meet between the covers of your book and I think the total is 53 or 54, depending on whether you count E.B. White and his Stuart Little as 1 or 2 folks.”

“Is it that many? Fifty-four?” Jon said. “I hadn’t counted but I made those connections as I wrote intentionally to lead readers toward other sources.” His helpfulness extends to the final 24 pages of this book, which suggest additional books and ways to delve into many of the references within these chapters. Like Jon and his beloved cats—this is a very friendly book.

In our interview, I described it as “a very helpful book. I turned down the corners of dozens of pages where I want to dig deeper in my own future reading. I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of folks you drew on for illustrations. Like the window that lets in the sunlight, this book really is a gateway.”

Who are some of the people we can meet through Jon’s gateway? Standing in this book’s “great cloud of witnesses,” we might say, are the Sufi poet Hafez, science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, novelist Iris Murdoch, Benedictine teacher Christine Valters Paintner, the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, sculptor Candice Lin, the beloved Rabbi Nachman of Breslov and Native American sage Nicholas Black Elk, whose life Jon explored in a 2020 biography.

Jon said, “Most of the 50-or-so people you can meet in this book are an integral part of my own life, like Nicholas Black Elk, who I wrote about for Liturgical Press’s People of God biography series. When I draw from the Quran in this book, that’s a part of my life, too. I’m in the middle of a monthly series of meetings with a Muslim refugee to learn more about the Quran. When I draw from Judaism, I’m married to a rabbi so we’re involved in Judaism all the time. The way this book is written really is an expression of my life.”

And Finally: Facing the Francis Problem

“Because I love your new book, I’m not sure if I should bring up the one problem you’ve encountered since writing about cats,” I said, trying to soften my question even as I posed it.

I could see Jon already nodding on the Zoom video.

“Of course, this is the Francis question,” I said. “Or maybe the double-Francis question.”

Readers familiar with Catholic tradition and Vatican news will recognize that both the world-famous St. Francis of Assisi and his contemporary namesake Pope Francis are not fans of domesticated animal companions. Even though St. Francis is famous for finding wisdom among wild animals, he did not want his own friars to live with domesticated animal companions. And the saint’s current namesake at the Vatican does not have animal companions. Moreover, Pope Francis has publicly warned Catholics against showering excessive care on animals at the expense of care for the millions of needy humans around our planet.

Jon said, “The first thing I need to say is: I didn’t know anything about real cats at the Vatican, except that so many cats live in Rome. It was only after I published the first Pope’s Cat that I began hearing from readers, ‘Oh, this is about Pope Benedict and his cat!’ I honestly did not even know that Benedict had a cat. So, I have to keep telling readers: This pope series is fiction. It’s a cat’s-eye view of life at the Vatican, like other writers have imagined animals’ perspectives on life.”

“Like Robert Lawson’s children’s classic, Ben and Mewhich imagines a mouse’s view of Benjamin Franklin’s life,” I said.

“That’s the idea,” he said. “Those Margaret stories are fiction. And, I had to be careful as the Margaret series continued because there were at least a few illustrations that I saw pre-publication that were looking too much like the current pope and we had to make sure we weren’t being that literal.”

“I do think that your approach to carefully observing animal behavior—in this case the behavior of cats—does have an echo of St. Francis’s approach to observing animals,” I said.

“Yes, I understand why Francis didn’t want his friars to keep cats or other animals as a part of their daily lives, because Francis really wanted to free his friars from daily domestic duties that come along with animal care. He wanted his friars to be freely active in the world. He was resistant of contemplative tendencies early in his movement,” Jon said. “And I also can understand what Pope Francis meant when he warned people about going nuts over their animals while they may be ignoring the human needs around him. I’m well aware of these concerns.”

‘Appreciating what is right in front of us’

The last question in author interviews is always: “How do you hope readers will be changed by reading your book? What new awareness do you hope your book will spark?”

“I hope that readers will come away with a richer understanding of their ordinary domestic lives. We all could use a lot more of that awareness,” Jon said. “Especially those of us who are involved in religious life find ourselves devoting a lot of time to texts, a lot of time to listening to spoken words, a lot of time traveling to places that are supposed to be religious.

“We don’t spend enough time appreciating what is right in front of us,” he said. “And, if you do live with cats as I do—that includes appreciating the wisdom of your cats.”



Care to Learn More?


CONNECT WITH JON: Buy his new book and you’ll find links to his social media. Although he is a well-known author and sought-after speaker, he’s easy to find online.

RESOURCES from SPIRITUALITY AND PRACTICE: Our longtime friends Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, cofounders of the online hub Spirituality & Practice, were supportive of Jon’s new book even before he finished writing it. Early in his writing, Jon taught an online Spirituality & Practice course that’s now available “on demand.” Then, closer to the release of his final book, the Brussats also posted a review of his book.



Meet Reasa Currier of the HSUS—a different kind of interfaith activist

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s the mission of an interfaith activist?

Often, the vocation involves bridging religious barriers in our communities, combating bigotry, defending human rights, and courageously promoting peace in global hotspots (see for more).

This week, we’re introducing a different kind of interfaith activist who is crisscrossing the nation on behalf of animals: the Humane Society of the United States’ Reasa Currier. Her title is long: Strategic Initiatives Manager for Faith Outreach, a division of the HSUS.


Reasa Currier’s mission is clear: She connects with religious leaders and activists who are motivated by their faith to join in widespread efforts on behalf of animals.

She’s relatively new to the job, yet her potential impact also is clear: In June 2015, Tennessee enacted tougher penalties for animal fighting, a campaign in which the Southern Baptist Convention played a key role thanks to Reasa’s work on behalf of HSUS with Russell Moore, president of the influential Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting; it is a move away from the exploitation of the poor through expanded gambling,” said Moore, who attended the June 11 signing of the legislation in Tennessee.

The anti-animal-fighting campaign is aimed at more than owners and promoters of animal fights. Reasa reminds faith leaders that this business represents a dangerous lure for poor Americans, often drawing them into ever-deeper cycles of gambling and also bringing their children into the bloody world of animal fighting.

Fighting rings are dangerous environments for vulnerable men and women, Moore and other religious leaders argue. In a public letter endorsing the Tennessee law earlier this spring, Moore warned that a “relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow.”

Are you surprised that kids are involved? One Tennessee newspaper featured a photo of a small boy proudly showing off his fighting bird.

Reasa says, “We’ve been involved in opposing dog fighting and cock fighting rings all across the country and we often find that children are present. We’ve found playpens set up near the fighting for small children. We’ve even seen children exchanging money as they gamble on the fights. That’s why we’re focusing on keeping children away—and we also support making it illegal for anyone to attend an animal fight. All too often, police raid a fight and nearly everyone walks away with no consequences.”

Many religious leaders find such a cause is in perfect alignment with their values. (Here is Baptist Press coverage of the Tennessee effort.)


Animal welfare and creation care may not be high priorities in your congregation—but they could be, Reasa argues. She can show teaching documents that span centuries and, in some cases, millennia.

“Many Americans are aware of the ancient tradition of  compassion toward living things in the Dharmic faiths,” which include Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions, Reasa says. “But, all of the world’s faiths have some teaching on animal stewardship—so I’m not trying to convince people to accept something new. It’s right there in their religious traditions. A lot of my work is connecting with faith leaders to lift up the teachings that they already have in their communities.”

The majority of Americans are Christians, although they may not often explore their teachings on animal welfare. The Christian connection draws on ancient roots of compassionate stewardship of land and animals in Judaism—a message of care for life that also extends into the other “Abrahamic” faith: Islam.

Many iconic Christian leaders—from St. Francis to the founder of United Methodism John Wesley—were famous for advocating animal welfare. ReadTheSpirit magazine has one of Wesley’s sermons on the topic. During his lifetime, some of Wesley’s harshest critics poked fun at his soft heart for animals and joked that they could spot a Methodist farmer’s barnyard by the kinder ways he treated his animals.

“Christians have a great and ancient history in understanding there is a sacred relationship between the farmer and the land, the land and the community and that includes the welfare of animals,” Reasa says. “There are so many scriptures that speak to this relationship.”

Given this deep consensus, Reasa says, “The easy part of my work is getting endorsements from faith leaders for issues the Humane Society is supporting. Sometimes it only takes a call or an email to tell them about an issue we’re working on—and they’ll want to be part of it. The hard part of my job is building community among the individuals we reach. We need to establish ongoing connections around animal stewardship.”

While Reasa’s work is in the U.S., she points out to religious leaders that efforts on behalf of animals and the environment can build relationships in the burgeoning Southern Hemisphere, where Catholics, Protestants and Muslims all have been experiencing growth. Uniting North and South is a message championed this year by Pope Francis.


As she travels, Reasa writes and speaks about signs of hope she sees nationwide.

“The news about climate change and the challenges of creation care can quickly turn to conversation about hurricanes and poverty and tragedies—and that can lead to a kind of helplessness,” she says. “The problems can seem to be of such magnitude that it’s just hopeless to try to make a difference as an individual.”

HSUS is well aware of that danger. That’s why the organization promotes lots of individual initiatives like The Humane Backyard, which people can work on wherever they live. Here’s how HSUS describes the idea:

In addition to providing food, water, and cover, a Humane Backyard gives wildlife a safe haven from harmful pesticides and chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices (such as wildlife trapping), and other dangers in our human-dominated world. Whether you have an apartment balcony, suburban yard, corporate property, place of worship, or community park, you can turn it into a habitat for wildlife, people, and pets.

For her part, Reasa lifts up small but significant examples she spots, while on the road. Recently, she published a column about a seminary that has established a community garden that is changing the way people think about the food they eat.

“I was impressed with their garden,” Reasa says. “They aren’t sinking into helplessness. They are doing something—planting a garden, harvesting vegetables and making a commitment that all their food is sourced in a sustainable and humane manner. They get their meat and dairy from local farms that have high animal-welfare standards. And the vegetables they grow are letting them cut back on the amount of food they’re buying that has to be transported thousands of miles.”

Want to get involved?

Learn about the Faith Outreach division of HSUS.

This week, ReadTheSpirit is publishing several columns packed with ideas you can use with friends. If you found this story about Reasa Currier interesting, then you’ll also want to read our story about the importance of Pope Francis’s campaign on creation care—and you’re sure to enjoy the OurValues series exploring the historic release of a new Dr. Seuss book: What Pet Should I Get?

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

Iona meets Interfaith Peacemakers in John Philip Newell’s ‘Rebirthing of God’

WE at ReadTheSpirit magazine sometimes overlook great new books, until colleagues reach out to us and urge us to recommend them. Such is the case with John Philip Newell’s new The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, which was released some months ago.

Of course we can heartily recommend this book! ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Publisher John Hile have made multiple pilgrimages to the centuries-old Christian community on the island of Iona, which defines John Philip’s life and is a cornerstone of the stories in this slim new volume. And, we have recommended his other books in recent years, including A New Harmony as well as Praying with the Earth.

This new book inspires us especially, because John Philip includes inspirational profiles of men and women who we also celebrate in Interfaith Peacemakers, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi and Simone Weil. (If you’ve enjoyed our stories about these heroic saints, then you’ll definitely want to read John Philip’s stories about them in this new book, as well.)


Long-time contributing writer, scholar and author Duncan Newcomer prompted today’s column, recommending The Rebirthing of God. Last week, Duncan wrote to our home office that he had just used an illustration from the new book in a sermon he preached. Duncan wrote:

I read John Philip’s book and was so astonished that I read it a second time. Then, I outlined the book, because I know I’m going to be discussing it as I travel and speak to groups around the country.

Recently, I told John Philip: “While I will always most highly favor your 2003 book, Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, this new one may be your best in that it has such an intense and clear focus, incredibly condensed and urgent. It’s a unique and remarkable collection of sources and resources all dramatically presented in their essence. What seems most remarkable is that you have collected a cohort of strong, originally and courageously involved people to quote—and you give us cameo images of their lives.”

As I read the book, I thought: Imagine a round-table discussion of all the people we meet in these pages!


Then, here’s a page from John Philip’s new book to give you a feeling for his style in these inspirational stories. Many passages are, indeed, about the lives of interfaith heroes. But, again and again, John Philip brings these ideas home to his native Scotland and frequently tells us about experiences on Iona itself. After describing the compassion that defines the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, he writes:

Many years ago when my wife and I were hiking in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland we had just reached one of the highest peaks, Sgoran Dubh, when a thick cloud descended on s. It covered the mountain. The mist was so thick that we could barely see our outstretched hands. Climbing in the Cairngorms can be dangerous. Every year hikers die in such circumstances, slipping off precipitous cliffs. Sgoran Dubh can be particularly treacherous because a few yards from its summit there is a sheer drop of over 2,000 feet to the next glen.

We knew where we were and we had a compass and a map. So we took a reading and, one step at a time, followed our readings of the map and compass down the mountain. There were moments when we could barely believe the compass was right. At times our senses were telling us something entirely different. But we knew that we had to place our faith in the compass. In the end we emerged safely from the cloud down the mountainside.

Notice the similarity between the word “compass” and the word “compassion.” They share an etymological root.

The earliest use of the word compass does not, of course, refer to the modern hiking compass as we know it, the one I had in hand as we descended the mountain. The word is first used to refer to the mathematical compass, that simple two-pronged device that many of us remember  using in grade school to measure the distance between two points and to draw arcs and circles.

A compass, then, is used to determine the relationship between two points. The related word compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection—just as we followed the compass in descending the mist-covered mountain—even when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.

 Order a copy of John Philip Newell’s new book from SkyLight Paths.

The Eileen Flanagan interview about her memoir ‘Renewable’

“The renewable energy we need most is people power!”
Bill McKibben

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Frederick Buechner

AN EARLY SIGN of spring’s renewing power is the rise of common violets, pushing heart-shaped green leaves through even the thickest thatch of winter-mottled lawns and fields. And just in time for spring, Quaker writer and activist sends us all Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.

This is a book about time and travel—and much like The Wizard of Oz, which we just wrote about recently, Eileen’s memoir carries us around the world yet brings us inevitably home again with a renewed love for our own back yard. She carries us through time, as well, greeting us in the opening pages at age 50, then looping us back through the decades to her days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. As we travel with her through the times and places that represent milestones in her life—she is inviting us as readers to reflect on the many twists and turns in our own lives.

You’ll walk away from this book less afraid of the future—and you may find yourself swept up in Eileen’s enthusiasm for rediscovering and renewing her life’s vocation in the second half of her life.

Mid-way through the book, she quotes Sue Monk Kidd’s description of this process: “When change-winds swirl through our lives, especially at midlife, they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey: that of confronting the lost and counterfeit places within us and releasing our deeper, innermost self—our true self.”

That’s the hope that will rise through the winter-mottled thatch of your own life as you enjoy this new memoir.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …


DAVID: Let’s say I was introducing you at one of your public appearances. How should I describe you?

EILEEN: “A Quaker writer and activist.”

DAVID: Quaker first?

EILEEN: My hope is to reach a broader audience but I’ve decided “Quaker” is such an important part of my identity that I want to include it.

DAVID: Your website describes Quakers this way:

Quakers (also known as Friends) often speak of “that of God in everyone” to sum up the idea that each of us is connected to the Divine Spirit and can feel its guidance in our lives directly, without the need of a priest or minister. Quakers have also long held that faith should be expressed in the way we live, not just our words.

I think that’s a helpful description and it positions Quakers, or Friends, among religious groups in America as a very welcoming spiritual community—something lots of Americans are searching these days.

EILEEN: When I talk about being Quaker, I often joke that we’re not Amish because that’s a common misconception.

DAVID: I’m chuckling as you say that, because that’s a telling detail late in your new book. When you’re getting ready to take part in this big protest with Robert Kennedy Jr., the actress Darryl Hannah and the activists Julian Bond and Bill McKibben—you remember to put on mascara. Why? You tell your colleague it’s so they’ll know you’re not Amish.

EILEEN: When people hear the word “Quaker,” they think we’re associated with some bygone day. A lot of people think of the Amish.

To me the exciting thing about Quakerism is that we believe God’s guidance is continuously revealed. And, I think it is a very contemporary faith.

What’s really core about Quakerism? The direct relationship with the divine and that we experience that and test God’s guidance in community. In many religious traditions, if you feel you’re hearing some guidance from God, then you check that guidance with church leaders or with the Bible. In Quaker tradition, the community is really the check and balance with our religious experience.


DAVID: That’s a central theme in this new memoir—community. Again and again, you emphasize that, even though you have experienced a few shining moments with celebrities, this effort of raising awareness and changing our lives is really about—to borrow your phrase—“ordinary people” working in communities.

Here’s a passage I like from late in the book. You’re describing what you discovered in this long, reflective journey you’ve taken:

From Africa, to Appalachia, to Alberta, and right around the world, there were ordinary people stepping up to defend the future. Like the crowd that encircled the White House that February day, we were pouring forth—past the view of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken at the 1963 March on Washington, past the White House gate where Alice Paul had stood for women’s rights, past the wrought iron fence where I had stood a few days before. We were the many, emboldened by the realization we were not alone, and we were moving forward with hope.

And I have to say about that passage: That truth you were glimpsing is powerful stuff. And it’s not a foregone conclusion for most people. Just read James Gustave Speth’s Bridge at the End of the World to see how he prioritizes the most serious questions about the Earth’s future. One of the biggest questions Speth raises is: Do human beings care enough about the planet to act as a global community?

Your book is a resounding message: Yes, ordinary people can act in concert, if we recognize and act on that possibility.

One of the people who makes this point in your book is the famous activist and teacher George Lakey who says: “We need to have the experience of being the many.” George is a friend and mentor to peacemaker Daniel Buttry, who created the Interfaith Peacemakers project. I know you work regularly with George, Eileen, and I was so pleased to see him in this book.

EILEEN: George is a very strong proponent of the idea of focused, long-term campaigns. You pick a target and then you work on a long-term strategy for your campaign. That’s different than the kind of activism in which people decide to go to one big event a year and then go home.

So, a national march was happening and I said, “Let’s go to the march as a group.” Then I wondered: But, is this the sort of thing we should do? Are we tired of going to marches on the Mall? And, George got behind the idea.

George said, “We’re doing our work on our own, so it’s important to connect with others doing this kind of work.”

I hope readers understand this combination. It’s not just glorifying national marches. I’m writing about this combination of doing very focused work and then also deciding to be with other people doing focused work. When you do that, you realize that your own work is part of a growing movement—a global movement—and that helps us not to get stuck in despair about whatever we’re facing in our own work.


DAVID: One of the central messages of this book is: Age doesn’t matter. We can renew our vocation at any age and find good work, even close to home. The first sentence of your book identifies you as a woman who had reached the age of 50, at that point. This book really is both a summing up of the first half of your life—and a look ahead toward the good work you’re hoping to do in your life’s second half.

EILEEN: My experience is as a woman who put child-rearing first. Timing in life can be different for women and men, in general. A lot of men go full throttle in their careers from their 20s through their 40s and then their 50s is a time when they want to step back. I made choices in my life as a woman to put parenting first and, in those years, I wrote part time, in the cracks of my day. I chose to spend time with my children in the schools, with my congregation and I hit the age at which this book opens. I realized that I wanted to do more work in the world.

For some people, mid-life is a time when we want to let go of external work. For me, it was the opposite. I felt there was something I was meant to do in this world that I hadn’t done yet.

DAVID: Part of that decision, for you, involved travel. Your book encourages people to get out and about—to move around our planet.

EILEEN: It’s not the distance you travel that’s important. What’s most important is experiencing other cultures, and you don’t necessarily have to travel very far to do that. Within a five-mile radius of almost any American city, you can find cultures that you’ve never experienced.

I am a great advocate of travel, but it’s not just the miles you travel that are important. You could travel all the way to Botswana and go on safari there—yet you might never actually experience the lives of the people who live there. We need to see our world from the perspectives of other people who live here on this planet with us.


DAVID: Give me an example of a cultural difference you’ve seen that could help us here in America?

EILEEN: One example is the way we think about community. I grew up in the suburbs in an apartment, where we didn’t think about our neighbors in the way people in Botswana think about community. Let’s say you’re cooking dinner in a suburban home and you realize you don’t have an onion you need to finish what you’re making. Most Americans would drive to a store and buy an onion. In Botswana, neighbors walk next door and ask if they can have an onion.

Lots of church people here in the U.S. are willing to share when they know someone is in need. But, we find it hard to ask for help.

DAVID: And you connect this kind of idea with your goals of simplifying life in general—and helping to combat climate change, right?

EILEEN: The connection I make is that, if we’re going to strengthen our communities by living more simply, then we have to find out what we truly need in our neighborhoods. Do we all have to go out and buy every gadget that’s ever been invented for taking care of our homes? Could neighbors share a lawn mower, for example?

This will become more important in the years ahead if we are going to survive climate change. We’re going to see more severe storms. In a hurricane, it becomes very important to know your neighbors and to depend on each other.

I had to go far away to see that value of community sharing in action, but you don’t have to travel that far to rediscover it. Sharing really is a core human value and we find it running through all kinds of cultures around the world. It’s just that in the suburban America of the late 20th century, the place I grew up, that value had been diminished in a lot of ways.

DAVID: So, what’s your hope for readers of this book. What do you hope they’ll experience?

EILEEN: I have two hopes that reflect the two themes of the book. One is that I want to encourage people to live their own purpose to the fullest. I’m telling people: Don’t wait. Whatever it is you want to do—do it now. Use the gifts you have in service to others.

Secondly, I would love to see people doing more on climate change, after reading this book. A growing number of people of faith are already thinking about this. And, in this book, I’m telling readers: I found that I couldn’t do this all by myself. I would love to see more people of faith inspired to take action together.

Care to read more?

VISIT HER ONLINE HOME—You’ll find lots of resources at, the author’s online home. That includes an “Epilogue” post she wrote shortly after we completed this interview. If you buy her memoir, you’ll want to read that Epilogue after you’ve finished her book. It contains some additional “good news” about her efforts. You can also find out about her public appearances across the U.S.

READ HER EARLIER BOOK—Eileen’s earlier award-winning book The Wisdom to Know the Difference was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. In 2009, ReadTheSpirit interviewed Eileen about that book. You also might want to explore her Amazon author page, where you’ll also find recent updates.

GET INVOLVED—Climate change is a central concern in Eileen’s work. One of the best places to learn about her work on climate change is this 2013 story she wrote for The Christian Century. (Of course, there’s much more about this issue in her new memoir and on her website, as well.)

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

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

KIDS love our world—and expect those of us who are adults to take care of the planet until they are old enough to fully enjoy the Earth. One poll after another confirms that truth—and that’s a huge responsibility as Earth Day 2015 rolls around.

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



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


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


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

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


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


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

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

What stories make a difference? ‘The Two of Us’

“Good media builds good community.” That’s as true today as it has been in our religious traditions for thousands of years. Now, you can play a role—and perhaps win a signed copy of my new book Short Stuff from a Tall Guy in the process. Below is a prose poem, based on a chapter from a classic novel published nearly a century ago. The story has shaped lives around the world.

YOUR CHALLENGE—Name the book and author. Because the following is a prose-poem based on and extending from one famous portion of the book, you can’t use Google to find the source of the following text. But, read the text and think about it! Talk to friends. You’re free to repost or to print out this text and share it in your small group. RESPOND by emailing your thoughts to [email protected]. From the emails that correctly identify the original book, I will draw a winner and mail out a personally dedicated copy of Short Stuff. Then, I will return online to talk more about how powerful stories shape our lives—and I will tell you the moving story behind the famous novel.



We cling to each other
like two oak leaves hanging on
against the chilling blast of
winter’s bitter bite.

It’s an ancient story;
yet only a day has passed since the latest news.
An old friend—
a beautiful, once-vibrant, gracious
breath of life—
Life’s winter season
racked body and soul.

The storyteller knows our questions:
“Why must we fall?”
“What happens to us when we have fallen?”

We hold gloved hands
and lean into the bitter wind,
determined to complete our daily walk.
We shiver from the bitter news
as sleet begins to bite our faces.
Too cold to talk, our teeth chatter—
we surrender, return home
with heavy hearts and cold parts.

Off come the layers,
out spill the words,
“You never know who’s going to go next.”
For a moment we hold each other,
transferring tender warmth.

The phone rings and a new father bubbles:
“Our child is born!
“Mother and daughter are doing well.”
We laugh.
“Oh, such sweet news. Gentle kisses to
Momma and your new daughter.”

I mumble, “Others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others,
and more
and more.”

She says, “Which one of us will go first?”

“There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” I say.

There is silence.
Then, she replies, “How kind you are.”

We hold each other and our questions:
Do you remember when we first met?
Do you remember how beautiful it was when…?
Do you remember the warm night on the sand when…?
Do you remember when we were so angry that…?

Finally I say it aloud: “Let’s remember.”

Do you remember?


Identify the original book and author. Email your thoughts to [email protected]

Good media builds good community. It’s a truth that touches the core of our spiritual traditions.