The Kent Nerburn interview on Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy

Great Plans vista

Cover Kent Nerburn The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo

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

For thousands of Kent Nerburn fans, all we really need to say is: Kent’s back on the road on the Great Plains! Come along! Click the cover, at right, to visit the book’s Amazon page and start reading!

But, first, you might want to read this new interview with Kent, the best-selling author of 16 books and a longtime friend to our online magazine. If you are meeting Kent Nerburn for the first time, here are a few things you need to know about him:

His vision is vast: Best known as an author, Kent also is a scholar, theologian and artist. He studied in the U.S. and Europe and finally earned a doctorate in religion and art. His sculptures, many on religious themes, are in collections around the world.

He invites us on pilgrimages: Best known for his books exploring Euro-American relationships with Native Americans, Kent also sees himself in a long and rich tradition of American arts and letters about the nature of journeys and cross-cultural connections. His road trips start humbly and we are half way through the bumpy ride before we discover these truly are pilgrimages.

He shares his wisdom in many forms: Some of his best books—such as Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life—are spiritual reflections drawing on Kent’s broad knowledge of faith and culture—but not necessarily focusing on Native American themes.

Ultimately, Kent is a unique American theologian—working his way through cycles of stories and artworks, travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in the geography and peoples of this continent. It’s a grand goal—an immense lifelong project—and we all are richer that, once again, we are invited to hop into Kent’s old car and roll down back roads in The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.

Now, Kent talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about his travels, his new book and the grand vision behind it all …


DAVID CRUMM: You have touched lives around the world with your art and your stories. This year is the 20th anniversary of Native American Wisdom, the first collection you published jointly with your wife Louise Mengelkoch, the journalist and educator. We’ve been on the road with you, Kent, for quite a while.

Author Kent NerburnKENT NERBURN: For me, the journey began long before that. My Dad was an American Red Cross regional director for disaster relief and, as a boy in the 1950s,  I would go with him in the car to places where he took care of people in the midst of great distress. I remember a big apartment-house fire one winter where he was called to help with the people who had lived in the building. There was one woman in her 80s who Dad showed over to our car and asked me, “Just stay with her.” I was 12 years old and I remember trying to console her as best I could, sitting beside her in the car and listening to her. Of course, I was confused. I was young. I remember her talking, over and over again, about her hope that they could get her cat out of her apartment. These were experiences that most people, at that young age, would never encounter. In those experiences with Dad, I suppose that I saw too much too early that was far too large for me to understand.

And so, I became a watcher. Even working as an artist, I didn’t sign my sculptures. I didn’t want to put my name on the pieces. I wanted to step back from them and be the watcher.

DAVID: Let’s remind readers that you are not a Native American. You’ve never claimed to be Indian and your books really are about how Euro-Americans can bridge the gap after so much pain and death—to build new relationships with Native Americans. Am I saying that correctly?

KENT: That’s right. I have never claimed to be Native American. You’ll never find me putting on native trappings or trying to claim native ceremonies. And, I have no patience with Euro-Americans who go out and claim Native American ceremonies as their own and start teaching them. There is a lot of legitimate anger on the part of native people who have seen their world appropriated in so many ways by non-native culture. I don’t want to be one of those who tries to take their culture from them, once again.

But I am helping in the retelling of our American narrative in a way that includes Native Americans. Our national narrative is so badly served by the way it is commonly retold. One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first. Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time—we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools and tried to expunge their history from them by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy—to erase—their stories from our national story.


DAVID: This connects with the much larger vision behind nearly all of your books. You argue that all of us living on this continent are called to envision a larger North American theology—a philosophy of this place, this geography, and our ultimate place in it. And you argue that the native peoples on this continent could have been—and still can be—an essential doorway in that journey.

KENT: Around the world, monumental forces have shaped people’s understandings of the gods and of our ultimate human concerns. People who live in mountainous regions tend to understand the gods differently than those whose culture is based along oceans. In North America, we ought to have a spirituality that speaks to the great forces embodied in this continent. As you know, I studied theology. My academic background is in theology and the arts. Native Americans have a connection to the theology of this land, a connection we worked for centuries to eliminate.

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not trying to create some artificial pan-Indian theology. Native people tell us not to do that. Native American traditions varied widely. But there are elements they hold in common. One is the sense that God is in every rock and river and aspect of the landscape. We European Americans have this assumption that nature is just out there for us to conquer. We have this idea of building cities on hills. Native people know that God is in the hill itself. Native peoples are mindful on a much deeper level of every hill, every stream, every cloud that passes through the sky.


DAVID: One of the central arguments that runs through all of your work is that we will never connect with this continent if we don’t leave our homes and start traveling around in this vast land. Most important in traveling is getting to know the people we encounter. When I read the opening pages of your new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, and I read about this woman asking you to drive her to the cemetery for a visit—wow!—right away my mind was connecting with one of your most famous stories: The Cab Driver, or sometimes it’s Called The Taxi Driver. These stories span your entire career.

KENT: Hey, you’re a sharp guy! I wouldn’t have thought of that connection—but you saw it and, sure, there it is! Yeah. We have to go out into the world and meet people and talk to them. That’s what I’ve done all my life. That’s what the cab story is all about. It’s true: I really did work as a cab driver and I encountered many experiences as powerful as that one I wrote about. I wish I’d kept better notes or a journal. Today, I’d have 100 stories like The Cab Driver from that time. That’s just one I managed to write down from that time.

Highway in the Great PlainsDAVID: You’ve been making a much bigger case through the decades. The quintessential American story is a tale of the road. We could list all the writers from Melville and Twain to Steinbeck and Kerouac. The list could go on and on. You’re trying to tell us something about repairing and clarifying what we might call The Great Story of America and, at the core of it, you’re telling us is a great, wide, nearly endless road.

KENT: The journey is my American experience. The road is my path. When I was very young, The Beats fascinated me. I actually did go out and hop freight trains. I hitchhiked. I can tell you some stories of experiences on the road that, now, I realize could have ended my life far too early. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I had to travel. I had to keep moving. I had to look everywhere to meet people and learn their stories.

For me, a kid from Minnesota, I always looked West. That part of the American mythic journey—looking West—is part of my life story as well.

DAVID: Let me read a passage from the middle of this book. It’s just one of many descriptions of the road itself—literally the act of driving across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains. I’ve crossed the Plains a good number of times myself, as a journalist, and it’s hard to describe this kind of driving. Here’s how you put it:

We rode on into the growing twilight. The tar strips beat a hypnotic rhythm beneath us as the lonely asphalt highway cut a meandering line through the treeless hills toward the horizon. It was a peaceful, almost empty landscape. Every few miles, a gravel road would cut off from the main highway, and a small house could be seen sitting alone and isolated far up in the hills. Here and there a rusted car body sat solitary in a field, or a broken farm windmill rose above the landscape on its spindly, triangular stilts. But mostly it was just earth and sky and the thin ribbon of roadway coursing like a fierce, dark river through the great, unpopulated land.

KENT: I’m so glad you read that passage. There’s nothing I love more than observing the passing landscape, whether from a train or a car. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I wrote those lines. But I was in South Dakota. As I was moving through that landscape, it was all about the watching and the emotion I was feeling. Then, later, I would recollect that journey and write down the telling details. I do make notes as I travel. I noted: windmill with broken vanes, road going back into the hills … Things like that. But, then, I go back and in memory I recapture the emotion and the essentials to put down on paper.


DAVID: You write so beautifully in this new book, not just about the landscape, but about the culture stolen from native people through the whole array of institutions where Indians were locked away for so many years.

In your earlier book, the second volume in this Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy, you wrote about the boarding school era. Then, in this book, you write about other kinds of prison-like institutions that were set up. Now, more and more Americans are learning about what took place in our collective name over so many years. The “boarding school tragedy” is becoming a part of our common knowledge. But one thing that is so crucial to convey is the voices of people who actually experienced being locked away until their culture was—in many cases—literally beaten out of them.

Let me read from later in the book, a man describing how the boarding schools left him:

Every day I was scared of dying. I was scared of being beat. I was scared of burning up in the Christian god’s fire. I was scared of dying in a white man’s bed surrounded by the bird women and men with the yellow teeth. I was scared and lonely, and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. But I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to follow the rules. So that’s what I did. That’s all that I did. I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t smile. I didn’t cry. All I did was keep my mouth shut and follow the rules.”

KENT: Again, thanks for reading that passage. I do want to say that, in these books, I am not trying to beat readers over the head with the endless litany of horrible things that took place. Many of these horrors now are well documented. There are lots of tragedies I could have described—but, in our world today, there are so many tragedies and murders that our hearts become inured to it all.

I remember once I was teaching a class and I began to show the students Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, and this one girl raised her hand. She asked: “Why are you making us watch this? I don’t need to be aware of this.”

Of course, I thought she was wrong but I understood that response. In this new book, I tell a story through the voices of one or two main people.

DAVID: And it is a lively and engaging story. It’s part a travelogue, part a cycle of great tales from the Great Plains, part a vivid slice of Indian life today. But there is this subtext to the book, always asking us to remember what was done in our collective name. As people learn more about the boarding school era, they’re likely to be shocked to learn that a lot of this occurred right up into the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t ancient history. There are people living today who were locked away in schools and other institutions. There were international parallels, of course. In Australia, where the national government now has come to terms with the tragedy more completely than our government has even attempted, this pattern continued right into the 1970s, as well.

KENT: And often the people running these places were doing it with what they perceived as the best of intentions. We should say that the worst of the boarding school abuses ended by the 1950s, but these institutions did continue. There are some boarding schools today, although they are of a different kind than the schools we’re describing in these earlier eras.

I went to visit one of these places. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, “Sure.”

I asked, “Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?”

He said, “Yeah, I went.”

“How was it?”

He said: “I learned good language. I learned good Christian.” Then, he paused. Finally, he said, “And now I’m no longer myself.”

To me, that was a dagger in my heart. This was a kindly man, a good man. And yet he was telling me that the boarding school experience had taken a boy and made him into someone who was cut off form his roots. The boarding schools did give many young people a good trade. It taught them good English. It gave them a warm place to stay and regular meals at a time when many on the reservations were starving on those reservations. So the whole experience is a very mixed narrative.

DAVID: I want to close by asking you about the loyalty of your fans. I went into Amazon and looked at the reader reviews of quite a few of your books. You’ve accumulated hundreds of reviews—and the vast majority are 4 or 5 stars. In fact, most of them are 5-star raves. To what do you attribute that strong enthusiasm for your books? Maybe that’s an unfair question to ask. But do you have an answer?

KENT: Yes, I actually do have an answer. I’ve thought about this and I think the response is: It’s because I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self or my sarcastic or angry self get into my books. I had a professor in graduate school who ended a seminar on Creativity and the Sacred with these words: “I don’t care where all of you come out spirituality, but I hope you all realize you have a ministry.”

I understand exactly what he meant. As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart.

I don’t live from the heart every day. I often feel like I’m a troll beneath a bridge holding up an angel on a stick. People look down and see me, that troll down there, but what I’m interested in doing is having them focus on the angel I’m holding up. It’s easy to write with a wry edge or to drip sarcasm on the page. I am sometimes like that in my life—full of sarcasm. But that’s not the ministry with readers.

I’m called to hold up the angels. I’m giving readers stories with heart. I’ve worked very hard on this. I’ve had years of spiritual formation. I’ve spent years developing this voice from an open heart. And readers respond—because they recognize a good heart when they encounter it.

Care for more from Kent Nerburn?

Get the books! Click on the linked book titles, above, to visit their Amazon pages.

For more on the two previous books in the “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” trilogy—including more historical details on the Native American boarding schools—read our earlier interview with Kent Nerburn. That interview focuses on Kent’s second book in the trilogy, “The Wolf at Twilight.”

Shopping for great reading? Please, visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore anytime. Support our work by buying our recommended books—and telling friends.

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

The Debbie Blue interview on Consider the Birds

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

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

WHAT IF God is less like an eagle—and more like a … vulture?

What if the Spirit of God is less like a dove—and more like a … pigeon?

These are just a couple of the startling questions explored by the innovative Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue in her new book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. You may have discovered Debbie Blue before today’s interview. You might have heard one of the popular podcasts she posts from her congregation: House of Mercy, in St. Paul, Minnesota. You may have heard this line that often is used to describe Debbie: “She approaches scripture like a farm wife handles a chicken, carefully but not delicately, thoroughly but not exactly cautiously.” House of Mercy often is called: “a pretty great church.” If this is sounding like a story by Garrison Kiellor, then you’re not far off the mark. Debbie and her congregation have been featured on Minnesota Public Radio.

And, just like listening to Garrison Kiellor, you may not agree with every story Debbie tells. But, you will think about the world a little differently after the encounter. You’ll definitely think about the Bible in new ways.


DAVID: Your church is in St. Paul but you really are a farmer, right?

DEBBIE: My family and I live on about 80 acres with four other families. We share the land together and, yes, we do some farming—but mostly we have what you would call gardens. We’ve been doing the House of Mercy for 18 years, so we’ve been at this for a while. I have a son who just went off to college for the first time and a daughter who is 13.

DAVID: It’s not what we would call a “commune,” though. For example, you’re not like a Bruderhoff Community with a shared kitchen and evening meals together. Your living situation is looser than that.

Debbie Blue author of Abingdon book Consider the BirdsDEBBIE: We all have our own dwellings here. Our community has been going on for 18 years and I think it works because we’re not that intense of a community. We’re good friends who share the land. We do have occasional meals together.

DAVID: And it’s relevant to this book that you know what you’re talking about on a very practical level when you write about the natural world and our relationship with animals and birds. Or, as readers think about that promotional line comparing your qualities to a “farm wife”—well, the truth is, you do know something about farming.

DEBBIE: Yes, but the way I got interested in writing this new book actually was through my interest in medieval bestiaries.

DAVID: These were a bit like centuries-old encyclopedias of life on earth without the science. These medieval versions were created to draw Christian lessons from the animals.

DEBBIE: There had been a Christian tradition of trying to divide “man” from “beast” and the natural world from supernatural truth. But the medieval bestiaries took a different tack. In Job, it says: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”

The creators of these bestiaries believed that every animal, every plant, every rock—every created thing—possessed a truth of God. Often, the bestiaries were illuminated prayer books or Psalters that included these images of wild creatures. The thought was that these images could teach us something about God.

Yes, these medieval versions were full of pre-scientific ideas and some of the morality in these books was quite different than what we would teach today. But I think of my book as a contemporary version of a bestiary—looking for truth in things that are not of human construction.

The creators of the bestiaries paid such careful attention to these creatures, assuming that they might unlock windows for us that we normally keep closed. So, I love being part of that tradition. This really goes back to Jesus himself, who said: “Consider the birds.”

DAVID: It’s in Matthew, although some of the newer translations now render it, “Look at the birds …” It’s part of Jesus’s “Do not worry” teaching—and there’s a version of it in Luke as well.

Then, I want to bring up another great selling point for your book: Millions of Americans love birds! The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey says there are nearly 50 million American bird watchers—the most intense kind of bird lovers. If you add in all the people who have bird feeders, who love birds in comic strips and animated movies, who sing about birds in popular songs—well, this is a very crowd-pleasing idea! It’s great for individual reading, for small group discussion and imagine preaching a sermon series on Consider the Birds? People would flock to church.

Are you a birder with a Life List?


DEBBIE: I’m not as serious about birding as I once was—as I explain in the book. Back when I was courting my husband, I was pretty serious about birding and he taught me how to identify warblers. I was totally smitten with that idea. We paid a lot of attention to birds for a while, then we had kids and I started a church and it didn’t seem feasible to tromp through fields and woods with binoculars for hours, anymore.

Birding does give you this attentive space, though, that I wanted to experience again. One reason I wanted to write this book was that it required me to go outside again and spend time being attentive to birds. In the discipline of birding you come to appreciate waiting—using your body and mind as you pay careful attention. As in any devotional practice, birding creates a space in our lives that our culture desperately needs.

DAVID: Let me read a little passage from your book’s Introduction. You write: “Falling in love and identifying birds have similar effects. Normal life is altered; every experience heightened; what was mundane begins to explode with meaning. You think birds are just birds—undifferentiated fluttering, then you find one magnified in your lens. You recognize its unique markings, lines and color. Your heart pounds. It is a cerulean warbler. It is your new mate. I believe both things have equal power to change your life. I’m not kidding. Jim and I spent our courtship looking for birds. We drove to Nebraska to see the cranes do their mating dances.”

But I should quickly add that, while this book is about appreciating the birds in the Bible in surprisingly new ways—this isn’t a book about bird watching per se. Here are the 10 birds to which you’ve devoted 10 chapters: Pigeon, Pelican, Quail, Vulture, Eagle, Ostrich, Sparrow, Cock, Hen and Raven.


THE SACRIFICIAL PELICAN was a very popular image in illuminated manuscripts and medieval bestiaries. The iconic image showed a mother pelican piercing its own chest with its beak to feed its infants with her blood—and was used as a symbol of Jesus’s sacrifice. The original King James Bible featured the sacrificial pelican in an oval at the bottom of its first page. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn about this image, describing Christ as a “loving divine pelican.” In fact, the whole concept is erroneous, which Debbie Blue points out in her book. The idea of pelicans piercing their chests probably arose when people watched mother pelicans jostle their beaks against their chests to empty the last food from their expandable throat pouches.

THE SACRIFICIAL PELICAN was a very popular image in illuminated manuscripts and medieval bestiaries. The iconic image showed a mother pelican piercing her own chest with her beak to feed her babies with her blood—and was used as a symbol of Jesus’s sacrifice. The original King James Bible featured the sacrificial pelican in an oval at the bottom of its first page. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn about this image, describing Christ as a “loving divine pelican.” In fact, the whole concept is erroneous, which Debbie Blue points out in her book. The idea of pelicans piercing their chests probably arose when people watched mother pelicans jostle their beaks against their chests to empty the last food from their expandable throat pouches. Nevertheless, the image remains startlingly potent to this day.

DAVID: Like your beloved bestiaries, you play with the bird images in this book. So, let’s talk about two specific sections that certainly caught my eye and are likely to prompt a whole wave of sermons and group discussions coast to coast. I can just see the sermon titles out on the roadside sign boards—and curious folks showing up to see whether their local pastor has gone a little nutty.

Let’s start with your chapters on the Vulture and the Eagle. There are so many thought-provoking ideas, so much historical information and so many spiritual insights in these 40 pages that my copy of your book now has the corners of many of these pages bent down—lots of notes in the margins, too. I won’t try to explain everything you cover in these two chapters, except this:

You open our eyes to a whole new interpretation of the Hebrew term “nesher.” You write, “The Hebrew word nesher is often translated in our English versions of the Bible as ‘eagle,’ but most scholars agree that ‘griffon vulture’ is at least an alternative …”

Now, I’ve checked with rabbis on this point, because it is such a striking idea: God may be like a vulture. And I would say the consensus I’ve heard—not being a Hebrew scholar myself—is that you’re onto something here. While most would agree with the usual “eagle” translation of this term, the fact is: “Nesher” means a bird that tears with its beak and references in ancient scriptures do claim that this bird was the highest-flying of all birds.

The griffon vulture was one of the ancient birds known to the Jewish people—and flies far higher than eagles. In fact, one type of griffon vulture is confirmed to have flown more than 36,000 feet. We know that because it was  ingested into the jet of an airliner over the Ivory Coast at that altitude. You’ve also got a pretty good ally in Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who writes for Zoo Torah.

DEBBIE: I like that you’re hearing this is a possible translation from the people you’ve consulted. At this point, though, I understand why Westerners can’t seem to bring themselves to more commonly translate nesher as vulture. Our culture regards vultures as horrific. We don’t like them. They eat dead bodies. I understand this. In Minnesota, we have mostly turkey vultures and it’s hard to appreciate them as physically beautiful. Their red faces look like they’ve had their skin pulled off.

So we may not be too eager, at first, to translate God telling Moses that God bore the Israelites on vulture’s wings or to translate Isaiah as saying we will rise up on vultures’ wings. Eagles are such powerful birds and we’ve come to respect them.

But think about this for a moment. Eagles are known for killing. Vultures hardly ever kill or hurt a living thing—they eat what’s already dead. Vultures are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that otherwise might spread disease. They have these crazy-strong digestive juices that kill bacteria. The Mayans refer to vultures as “death eaters.” That begins to make sense to me: We need something to rid death of its toxicity in our world. Vultures stare death in the face—and death passes right through their bodies, rendered harmless. I like this idea that God can take anything in and make it clean.

And vultures do fly higher than other birds—tens of thousands of feet in the air! I love the idea of a slowly waiting God who is soaring and ever-patient. Have you ever watched vultures soar? It makes me cry to see it. It’s really gorgeous.

And I also like the way that talking about this bird imagery in new ways questions some of the symbols we associate with nationalism and patriotism. The symbol of the eagle now is almost hopelessly laden with images of massive power, fierce patriotism, killer instinct. I think it’s time to rethink this.


THE WORLD'S MOST FAMOUS DOVE: In the 1600s, when Vatican officials felt their power was in question, Gian Lorenzo Bernini created a massive multi-media artwork to enshrine The Throne of Peter. This complex installation included symbolic statues and, in the center, the famous window of yellow alabaster with the dove of the Holy Spirit at its center. Over the centuries, this dove has been reproduced countless times around the world.

THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS DOVE: In the 1600s, when Vatican officials felt their power was in question, Gian Lorenzo Bernini created a massive multimedia artwork to enshrine The Throne of Peter. This complex installation included symbolic statues and, in the center, the famous window of yellow alabaster with the dove of the Holy Spirit. Over the centuries, this dove has been reproduced countless times around the world.

DAVID: Well, compared with the Eagle-Vulture discussion, the Pigeon-Dove issue is crystal clear. They’re the same, really—all Columbidae. The point you raise in this part of the book is that the dove, as a symbol, has become boring from over-use. You write, “Maybe because it is such a familiar scene or because I’ve seen too many bad illustrations of it, or because the white dove has been overused as a symbol in commercial Christianity.” So, instead, you suggest that readers consider the possibility that dove references in Christianity might apply to pigeons in general.

DEBBIE: The dove is probably the most familiar bird in Christian symbolism. In each of the four gospels the Spirit appears at Jesus’s baptism as a dove. In the popular imagination, this has always been a snow white dove. But this story changes a lot when you realize that the bird at the baptism was probably more like a rock dove, which we might more commonly call a pigeon.The dove now is totally bland, but what happens when we think of the Holy Spirit as a pigeon? We tend to think of pigeons as dirty; we call them “rats with wings.” I love it that the symbol of the Holy Spirit might be a hair’s breadth away from human trashiness.

Yet, think of pigeons for a moment. They are everywhere! They leave droppings on our sidewalks and our window sills. What if the Holy Spirit is like the pigeon? What if the Spirit is always underfoot to the point that we almost hate the constant presence—always leaving signs of the Spirit’s presence—everywhere!

When we think of the Spirit as something rare and pure as driven snow, then we forget that the Spirit of God is far more complex than that—fuller, messier, everywhere in life. We can get hung up on purity. But, remember, when we say God created all life, everything was teeming and multiplying and swarming. Maybe the Spirit is more creative than pure. Maybe we need to rethink what holy truly is.

DAVID: What I like about this section of your book is the realization that you don’t have to travel all the way to St. Peter’s at the Vatican and pray in front of the snow-white-dove stained glass window there. You might have just as full of an experience of God’s presence on a park bench in New York City, feeding the pigeons.

DEBBIE: That’s my hope. I hope we can experience God everywhere and find that grace everywhere, not just in rarefied settings.

DAVID: If you could talk to readers finishing your book, what would you tell them to do next? How do you hope your book will affect people?

DEBBIE: I hope people will start paying attention to what’s around them everyday—the birds and the bushes and the grace of God around us all the time. Emily Dickinson wrote: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers …” and, if that is true, I hope we can increase people’s passion for keeping the world as beautiful as it is, now. I hope we’ll see more people working against climate change.

I hope people think about this: Hell would be a place without birds.

And I hope that I can help people to read the Bible in new ways—especially those who just can’t engage with the Bible now. I’m saying: There are layers and layers of meaning you can discover in the Bible. You can turn it—and turn it again—and look at it in new ways. There’s so much here, if we just look!


GET THE MUSIC! Debbie Blue’s House of Mercy also is a haven for musicians. Here is the overall House of Mercy music site. For the release of her new book, Debbie and her friends compiled a musical companion for readers who may be immersing themselves in the creative possibilities of birds for the first time. Visit this CD webpage for Bird Music, which describes the 15 tracks this way: The collection ranges from the old-time country sound of “The Great Speckled Bird” to the folk-pop of “Awake” to the jazzy cover of “Early Bird.” Tucked in-between these diverse styles is the gorgeous a cappella version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” that slows down and draws the listener in.

GET THE BOOK! Amazon offers Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible in paperback and Kindle editions.

ENJOY MORE ON READ THE SPIRIT: One of our own popular books is Conversations with My Old Dog, by Rob Pasick. You’ll also enjoy our interview with Marc Bekoff on The Animal Manifesto and Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster on The Friends We Keep. We also highly recommend the Faith Outreach department of the U.S. Humane Society. If you are interested in the spiritual values of farm life, you’ll enjoy our recent interview with Mennonite author Shirley Showalter. And—new this weekFaithGoesPop writer Jane Wells tells us about a record-setting discovery about one amazing kind of bird.

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

Interactive Humor: The Broom, Part 2



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

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

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

Jan now will receive an autographed copy of my book.

www ReadTheSpirit dot com winning caption for Michelangelo Creation with Broom

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

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

Stormy Weather: Powerless? Nature is the real power

THE DETROIT FREE PRESS TEAM finishing the front-page news story on the great power outage of 2003, from left standing with candle: Steve Spalding, then John Gallagher on the phone, Carole Leigh Hutton and David Ashenfelter. Metro Editor Bob Campbell sits next to David Crumm in lower right. David served as Rewrite and this Free Press team was finishing the main front-page story on the last laptop with battery power, helped along by Spalding's candle.

THE DETROIT FREE PRESS TEAM finishing the front-page news story on the great power outage of 2003, from left standing with candle: Steve Spalding, then John Gallagher on the phone, Carole Leigh Hutton and David Ashenfelter. Metro Editor Bob Campbell sits next to David Crumm in lower right. David served as “Rewrite” and this Free Press team was overseeing his work as David typed out the main front-page story on the last laptop with battery power, helped along by Spalding’s candle. The laptop is not visible in this photo, but the final minutes of its screen’s glow illuminate Bob and David. A moment later, a newsroom aide was dispatched to take the laptop’s flash drive and physically transport it to a printing plant that had backup power.

“If this phone line goes dead, that’s because of the storms hitting this part of the country,” our columnist and author Benjamin Pratt said this week as he telephoned the ReadTheSpirit home office in Michigan about the publication of his latest column.

The storms did more than knock out power. In a heart-breaking blow to people along the Boardwalk—high winds whipped fires that destroyed dozens of businesses. (See the news item below.)

This time of year—hurricane season—makes all of us anxious. As founding Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine and publishing house, I am writing this column because I so vividly recall the terrifying first hours of the “Blackout of 2003,” which affected 55 million people. I was a senior writer on the Detroit Free Press staff, at that time, and occasionally was called upon to serve as “Rewrite” for major tragedies. In a traditional newsroom, Rewrite was the staffer who sat by a bank of phone lines and took calls from a cast of dozens of reporters swarming all over a breaking story.

With my background in religion reporting and my generally calm demeanor, the Free Press honchos tapped me for Rewrite a number of times over the years. I was at the hub for a couple of plane crashes, a mass shooting, the explosion of a fireworks factory—you get the idea. The rest of the staff would run as fast as they could to grab individual facts, fanning out to police stations, emergency rooms, neighbors’ homes. On and on, they would race until deadline. And, Rewrite would take their calls, tapping more and more details into the final story with each telephone report.

The Blackout of 2003 now is remembered as a cautionary tale about flaws in our national power grid. One long National Public Radio report on the 10-year anniversary of the massive outage focused on the need for proper tree trimming along power right of ways. I thought: How the terror of that story has faded into mundane maintenance tips!

When the Blackout of 2003 hit, the first reports in our newsroom were: It’s another terrorist attack! As Rewrite, I recall one of the first phone calls came from a breathless reporter who was speeding somewhere in a Free Press car: “Flames have been spotted south of Detroit! I’m heading there now!” Turns out, those flames were just the tall, burn-off vents that always sent flames skyward in one industrial area south of Detroit. Suddenly, in the darkness that was descending all around us—those vent stacks were an ominous sign.

As my fingers tapped on a laptop, I thought to myself: “Wow. This is how panic spreads! In an instant of terror, we can leap to the assumption that we are under attack.”

The truth was: We were under attack from ourselves—our own flawed technology in the national power grid. (You can read all about it in the extremely detailed Wikipedia overview.)

The larger truth is: In stormy weather—when we’re suddenly powerless—we glimpse nature’s real power. Talk about scary!?!

Click the photo to read Rodney's story.

Click the photo to read Rodney’s story.

TODAY, our intrepid columnist and author Rodney Curtis has published a new column about this very point—as his family was just caught in a power outage.

ALSO TODAY, our caregiving expert Heather Jose writes about the challenges faced by millions of caregivers nationwide as seasons change. She invites readers to share tips to help caregivers prepare for fall and winter. It’s a great idea—and only takes a moment.

AND … BACK TO THE BLACKOUT: Now, 10 years after the 2003 blackout, as I look at that classic photograph of the Free Press team finishing the front page that day, I think: Is this a nostalgic look back? Or, is this a vision of how we’ll all be covering the next waves of disasters as nature truly unleashes her power?

Am I sounding shrill? I think not. After 40 years in journalism, my skin is as thick as a rhino’s hide. I’m simply reporting here: When we’re powerless, the real terror is that we glimpse nature’s unrestrained power. Want to have this message driven home with hurricane force? Grab a copy of Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl on DVD. In our home, we had to watch Burns’ four-hour documentary over four evenings. It was just too darned shocking to watch more than an hour of that film in one sitting! In the 1930s, bad farming practices in the Texas-Oklahoma region set off dust storms that eventually reached the East Coast and even dropped Great Plains topsoil on ships at sea!

‘it’s weird we cannot make the connection’

Another ReadTheSpirit writer, Eileen Flanagan, regularly reports in national publications about the looming effects of global warming. In early 2014, we will publish Eileen Flanagan’s new book—about urgent ways we need to start connecting our global family. If you’re already laying out the calendar for your small group discussions, now that Labor Day has passed—make a note to look for Eileen’s book. For quite a while, Eileen has been writing about these issues in national magazines. She just had one of her stories—a report on how climate trends are affecting Africa—published as a cover story in Christian Century magazine. The title: Temperature Rising.

If you click over to read that story by Eileen, don’t miss the quote from Pini Chepkoech Kidulah, an activist in northwest Kenya who is trying to raise awareness and responses to the growing crisis. Pini is Christian, as are many people in that part of Kenya, and she reminds all people of faith: “As Christians we need to approach it as a justice issue because we have a history of working for social justice, but it’s weird that we cannot make the connection on ecological justice, climate change justice and the issue of poverty.”


By now, you probably know the Boardwalk story: Ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, the folks who live and work along the Atlantic coast Boardwalk rebuilt their businesses to capture much of the 2013 tourist season. Then, a fire on Thursday—whipped by storms that hit the East Coast—wound up destroying dozens of businesses along the restored Boardwalk. Associated Press reports, in part:

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. — A massive fire spitting fist-sized embers engulfed dozens of businesses along an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk Thursday, forcing workers to rip up stretches of walkway only recently replaced in the wake of Superstorm Sandy as they raced to contain the blaze’s advance.  The 6-alarm blaze began in a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk around 2:30 p.m. and fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town where the MTV series “Jersey Shore” was filmed — and where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.

The CBS station in Philadelphia posted a several-minute video report in the middle of the night, as firefighters controlled the fires and residents, once again, talked about their resilience.

(This column originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith 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.

In ‘World Rat Day,’ poet J. Patrick Lewis invites youthful smiles—and flights of imagination

Cover World Rat Day by J Patrick Lewis and Anna RaffJ. Patrick Lewis already is inside countless homes, coast to coast, inviting children and their parents to read aloud from books like last year’s wonderful National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar! That big, fun, colorful volume won all kinds of honors, including nearly unanimous 5-star praise on Amazon in reader reviews.

If you don’t have that particular book on your shelf, then perhaps you’ve got one of Lewis’s other 80-plus books! Lewis’s various titles have been released by more than a dozen major publishing houses. In 2011, the Poetry Foundation named Lewis its third U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate. In other words: You’re placing yourself in masterful hands when you buy, enjoy—or give away one of his books.

This year, Lewis is back with a fanciful volume that grabs hold of the calendar—specifically the holidays that chart our progress through the year—and encourages his readers to think fancifully about the way we mark time. He calls it: World Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of.

The title poem in J. Patrick Lewis's new book for children, illustrated by Anna Raff.

The title poem in J. Patrick Lewis’s new book for children, illustrated by Anna Raff.

Given his career-long fascination with the natural world, most of the holidays he marks with playful poems—and colorful illustrations by Anna Raff—have to do with living creatures. His style of poetry toys with words, with the shape of his lines on the page—providing lots of fun for young readers and their parents. Envision a cross between Lewis Caroll, ee cummings and Ogden Nash.

Lewis claims that all of the holidays in his new book are real, although you’ll have to look far and wide to find the groups that “officially declared” some of these holidays. And, no, this book does not include a page of web links or other information about these festivals that he and Raff celebrate. But that’s hardly the point.

The real point is seeing our planet in a new way—and remembering the living creatures that make it such a marvelous place in which to live.

Lewis’s shortest poem is just six words in a single line for the mid-summer Ohio Sheep Day:

No one will ever forget Ewe.”

And, if you welcome this book into your home, your children will never forget your gift.

Review by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Francis: Poverty, rebuilding, animals & Interfaith Hero STORY of St. Francis and the Sultan of Egypt is retold in the book Interfaith Heroes. Click the book cover to learn more about that book.By THOMAS J. REESE, SJ

In picking the name Francis, the new pope sent his first message to the world, but what is that message? Four possibilities come to mind, and perhaps they are all true.

FIRST—A LIFE OF POVERTY: St Francis of Assisi was known for his life of poverty. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was also known and respected for refusing to live in the archbishop’s palace in Buenos Aires. Rather, he lived in a simple apartment where he cooked his own meals. He also put aside the chauffeur driven limousine and rode the bus to work. Will Pope Francis try to bring a simpler life style to the papal court? Is this a man who will be comfortable in silks and furs?

Here is a quote from him that should worry the papal court:

The cardinalate is a service is, it is not an award to be bragged about. Vanity, showing off, is an attitude that reduces spirituality to a worldly thing, which is the worst sin that could be committed in the Church…. An example I often use to illustrate the reality of vanity, is this: look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth… Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them.

SECOND—‘REBUILD MY CHURCH’: Early in his career, St. Francis heard a message from God: “Rebuild my church.” At first he thought God meant the building in the forest near where he was living. Only later did he realize that it was the institutional church, which was in disrepair, that he was to rebuild. With all the problems facing the church—sexual abuse crisis, declining membership in Europe and the Americas, and a Vatican Curia in need of reform—this name may point toward an ecclesial agenda.

THIRD—LOVE OF ANIMALS: Francis was also famous for his love of animals and nature. With the environmental catastrophe of climate change facing the world, his choice of name could point to an aggressive and prophetic stance on environmental issues. This is certainly one of the greatest challenges of the 21st Century, and it would be great to have the pope be a real leader on environmental issues.

FOURTH—INTERFAITH HERO: Francis was known for his peaceful and positive attitude toward Islam. He was no crusader when his time was marked by war between Christendom and Islam. Rather he walked through the battlefield unarmed to meet with the Sultan, who was so impressed that he listened to him and sent him back unharmed. At a time when peaceful relations between Muslims and Christians are again necessary for the good of the world, he could be sending a message not only to Christians, but also to Muslims.

There is another Francis that the new pope is connected to because of his Jesuit roots: St. Francis Xavier. This Francis was known for his missionary zeal. There is much talk in the church about evangelization because of the church’s losses in Europe and the Americas. Xavier was a man who did it. And he died on an island off the coast of China, which today is seen as a field ripe for the harvest.


This column is used by permission from Father Thomas Reese, the author of several essential books about the structure and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. His most important book, right now, is Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church,published by Harvard University Press. For decades, Father Reese has been one of the leading American experts on the Catholic church, quoted in newspaper, magazines and TV news stories. Father Reese also has organized an extensive index to Papal Transition stories, hosted by America magazine online.