Gift ideas: Meet the wise doctor in Streams of Contentment

Robert Wicks says, “I do darkness for a living.” By that he means that he has helped countless men and women emerge from the depths of a darkness that has overwhelmed them because of sometimes horrible trauma. Part of his expertise, for example, comes from working with returning veterans.
, in a series of remarkable books, Robert Wicks is helping all of us—whether our darkness is deep or perhaps is more of a daily struggle like crawling out of bed and facing a new day. His latest book is a terrific choice for holiday gift giving.
(AND: In our Monday story, we provided links to our coverage of Wicks’ earlier books, as well.)

Wicks introduces his new Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned on My Uncle’s Farm by reconnecting his own high-profile, urban life to his rural roots. More specifically, he is reconnecting his own professional role as a noted scholar with the kind of grassroots wisdom that surrounds millions of us—if we only recognize the connections that are possible close at hand.

In Wicks’ own words from his introduction: “Now in the fourth decade of my clinical practice, I can look back and realize how a country psychology has formed what I believe, how I think, and the way I live my life. It has helped both me and those who have come to me to find or regain a healthier sense of perspective in order to live a more meaningful and satisfying life.
“Life is simpler than we make it. Knowing this can encourage us to focus more direclty on what is truly important and essential in life. Adopting a psychology, philosophy, or spirituality that supports and fleshes out this way of living can be learned. And that is what the following pages are about


DAVID: Let’s start with the cover of your book. Is that your family farm?

DR. ROBERT J. WICKS. Photo courtesy of the publisher.ROBERT: No, but it’s an image similar to the landscape I knew so well. The image tries to pull together the concept of simplicity, and gratefulness, and the idea that life is something more than just competition to see how much we can achieve in terms of wealth and success. There were about 20 cover designs that were considered. I love the beautiful inspiration of this image that was chosen.

DAVID: Readers familiar with your work think of you as a big-city expert. You show up in network TV interviews. So, seeing you writing about “a country psychology” and your family farm—that may surprise some readers.

ROBERT: I was born and raised in New York City, but every summer my brothers, our Mom and I would go up to a farm that was owned by three uncles in our family. When I was a child, it was an active farm. I had a chance to really experience farm life. I walked through all of that acreage. And, in many cases, I was off on my own because of the different ages of the three boys in my family. On that farm, I discovered “mindfulness,” long before I even knew that term. To this day, if I pass a newsstand and see a copy of an outdoors magazine, I recall waking up early on the farm, putting on waders, walking out into a stream and casting out as the sun was rising, the mist was clearing and the bass were jumping.

DAVID: So what is “a country psychology”?

ROBERT: It starts with a real sense of simplicity, then faces things directly and carefully throughout the day. After I earned my doctorate in psychology, I wound up traveling out to work at a clinic in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is Amish country. And my work out there didn’t go so well. Turns out, they didn’t want Sigmund Freud. They wanted a country physician—someone who would help them analyze issues, look at resources available to them and then work out a prescription for how to handle things. In the city, I could do more long-term therapy, but there’s a much greater focus in the country on practical, short-term solutions.


DAVID: There is a strong tried-and-true principle that runs like a backbone through this new book. A lot of what you are recommending is well known. It makes good sense. However, I don’t want readers to think they won’t find some real surprises. So, let’s talk about a surprise I found in the opening section of your book. You say that people should respond to three basic callings in their lives. Self-awareness and transformation are callings one and three. Readers probably can guess what you’re describing there. But the middle call is “pruning.”

You write that, in your experience, pruning “worked quite well. It produced the same results that we see in nature when a bush or tree is properly pruned at the right time: more fruit is produced!” But—wow—that runs right in the face of the notion in our popular culture that we can do everything in life. We should try to be talented in all phases of life—be all that we can be. That’s what we hear all the time. Instead, you’re recommending pruning—cutting back and focusing on our life’s core vocation.

ROBERT: Yes, and I think this message sounds more appropriate now that people are being forced to downsize because of the economy. Pruning now makes more sense than ever. In fact, this basic message of seeking contentment in life is more important now than ever. You are right to think of these concepts as counter cultural. We know from working with plants that, when you prune something, it doesn’t blossom less. It blossoms more fully. But that’s not what our culture prescribes for our own consumption.

DAVID: We can only cut so far, though. We need a basic living wage.

ROBERT: Yes, but once we are making enough money to meet our basic human needs, money doesn’t contribute more than half of one percent to your happiness. That’s from actual studies done.

DAVID: Let me stop you right there, because the message is loud and clear in our culture: People with the most money lead the happiest lives. But I’ve reported on these studies for years, myself. Back in the 1990s, Juliet Schor was writing books like The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. Her research showed that the more we earn—the more we’re anxious about having enough. Schor’s research turned up that most of the people earning more than $100,000 per year claimed they did not have enough money “to meet the necessities of life.”

ROBERT: That’s right. I’m saying: If you’re earning that much and you still feel your basic needs aren’t being met in life, then more money is not going to add anything to your appreciation of life. People think its! People spend far too much time worrying about their wealth, the status of their 401K. But that preoccupation causes a lot of stress and grief. And, it can lead to a postponing of life. I’ll work even harder, right now, until I’m sure I have made enough. The truth is: You never will. The recession that hit all of us finally is convincing a lot of people that the old assumptions about accumulating wealth aren’t going to lead to happiness.

DAVID: And that’s why your book isn’t aimed at “Oceans of Wealth” or “Seas of Success.” This is a clear-eyed plan to achieve something much more likely for most of us: “Streams of Contentment.”

ROBERT: The theme of contentment in this book is to help people lean back and not confuse their endless wants with their basic needs. When we make that confusion in life, it causes a great deal of stress.


DAVID: Many authors we interview encourage readers to seek the help of the community around them. In fact, that’s a huge part of this new Guide for Caregivers project that ReadTheSpirit is unfolding through 2012. And, you make a very important point in this book: Not all communities are healthy for us. It’s crucial to discern a “renewing community.”

ROBERT: That’s right. There are a number of levels of community. There’s a community within you—the balance within you. It needs to be mirrored in the community outside of you. When you find a healthy community, you rejoice. This community encourages us in our lives and, when things go wrong, they support us in the midst of our discouragement. This community also is vital when our daily lives are simply running along without big ups or downs.

I tell people that there are four types of friends—or four types of voices—that we want and need in our lives: The first is the kind of friend that most people really don’t care for—but we need—and that’s the prophet. No one wants to hear what the prophet has to say, but the friend who is a prophet asks us the hard questions: What voices really are guiding you right now? Who are the invisible puppeteers in your life? The prophet makes us look at the hard questions. Then, the second kind of friend we need is the cheerleader, the supportive person who just thinks we’re wonderful. When we’ve had a rough encounter in life, we can call the cheerleader. Then, the third is a kind of harasser or teaser, the person who helps us laugh at ourselves. On the way to taking important things to heart in our lives, we often make a detour and wind up taking ourselves much too seriously. That’s when the teaser is very helpful. And, finally, we need spiritual or inspirational friends who call us to be all that we can be spiritually. If we have that kind of balanced community of friends—that whole range of voices around us—then we are much more likely to wind up finding contentment.


DAVID: Wow, at this point, we’re actually in danger of violating the advice in the final section of your new book! You give readers a 30-day shake-down course in becoming more spiritually healthy. And, you insist that nothing you list in that section should take more than “a few minutes” each day. Describe this very practical final section of your book.

ROBERT: I like that 30-day process I outline at the end of the book because these pieces are so extremely short. The normal source of resistance people throw up to improving their lives amounts to: I don’t have time to do this. I can’t go off on a retreat. I can’t read something so long. I can’t pray for an hour every day. So, the final section of this book completely sidesteps those objections. These final 30 pieces in the book can be read in about 30 seconds, each. Then, what I propose in these pieces is quick, too.

I hope that people will read through the whole book so they have a sense of what I am saying about simplicity and contentment overall. Then, those insights can form a kind of nest in your daily life—a nest you build day by day doing these simple things at the end of the book. We’re reinforcing these concepts on a daily basis.

DAVID: We keep hearing from readers nationwide that they want simplicity and a quick way to respond. That’s one reason we’re currently running very short challenges ourselves in this new Guide for Caregivers project. One recommendation we have right now is inviting readers to go “Like” the Caregivers new Facebook page and simply add the name of 1 song that boosts their spirits. Everyone has time for that!

ROBERT: I don’t know! (Laughs!) Sometimes even little things aren’t as simple as we think! I led a retreat for some Methodist ministers and I suggested that they take 2 minutes every day to wrap themselves in solitude and gratitude. So, the next morning, one pastor comes up to me and asks: “Do you really do that 2 minutes a day yourself?”

I said: “Yes, I do. Every day.”

And she said: “Well, I tried it this morning—and 2 minutes is a loooong time!”

REMEMBER: You can order the new Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned on My Uncle’s Farm very quickly by clicking over to Amazon right now!

Please help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Caregiver duties and responsibilities dragging you down? Keeping your spirit healthy begins with simple steps

FROM THE BACK COVER OF GUIDE FOR CAREGIVERS (Click this image to learn more about the important information in this book, and to order a copy.) Why did we choose a photo of Dr. Pratt smiling for the back cover? Because this book is such good news!MEET THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT,
expert behind the new
Guide for Caregivers

TODAY, we welcome the author of A Guide for Caregivers: Keeping Your Spirit Healthy When Your Caregiver Duties and Responsibilities Are Dragging You Down for a ReadTheSpirit author interview …

DAVID: You’re an expert on these challenges affecting at least 65 million caregivers, plus millions more—the loved ones these caregivers are helping. You’re a professional, a scholar in this field—but the truth is:
This is personal for you, right?

BENJAMIN: Yes, for 30 years, I was a pastoral counselor in the D.C. and Virginia area. Because of many men and women I came to know through my practice, I have to admit that I get angry now when I hear politicians taking cheap shots at government workers. I have worked with a lot of men and women in our military, in government service, in Congress, in the courts—and I can tell you that they are a very hard-working group of people. In fact, they’re so dedicated that they are prone to burnout.That’s why I first gained so much insight into burnout—which is one of the big challenges for caregivers today.

Then, I became a caregiver for my wife for an eight-year period. She was struck with debilitating issues in her early 60s and, despite the best medical care, this meant she was in pain often around the clock. That was true for one 18-month period in particular. I don’t know how many times I took her to emergency rooms. We saw specialists. We tried alternative approaches. We tried every way possible to relieve her constant pain. For me, this was so hard, as her caregiver, that I struggled with depression myself. I had to go for counseling myself. So, I understand the enormity of what people are going through on a daily basis. Yes, this is very personal to me.

Finally, in researching this book, I met so many caregivers, spent time with them and took their wisdom to heart. The original idea for this book came from a pastor friend of mine who told me that I should do a book with a title like: When Parenting Never Ends. His adult son had been hospitalized with mental illness and he was feeling the pain and helplessness of being a parent who had huge responsibilities for his son. That pastor asked me to lead a small group of parents and grandparents who were caring for children of all ages and conditions. That’s where this whole pilgrimage began.

DAVID: From your years, you have truly assembled a tested-and-true collection of tips, inspirational ideas and techniques! People surely will find something to help them with their spiritual challenges.

BENJAMIN: In the Acknowledgments section of this book, I thank many individuals and groups who shared their lives with me. To protect their privacy, I did not name them all. But, for example, two adult women with cerebral palsy, who live with caregivers, made a very important contribution to this book. Early in the planning stage, they looked me in the eye and said: “Keep it short! Remember—people in most caregiving relationships don’t have time to read much at any given moment.” I heard that advice from many others, too, and this book is designed with short, easy-to-read segments. You can enjoy some of these helpful pieces is less than a minute.


DAVID: You could almost flip this book open anywhere. You’ve got one section that I know readers already are responding to in large numbers. It’s about the music you sing or play throughout the day. Music can have an enormous influence on our spiritual well-being. You explain a bit about how this works. Then, you’ve found a whole series of inspiring quotations about music—drawing from a rock star to Beethoven. But, the best part of this section of the book is your invitation for readers to share online their own favorite music.

Even before your book was launched today, we asked readers nationwide to send in these musical suggestions. We call this growing list “Songs to Remember Our Hope.” Not a day goes by that we don’t get more recommendations from readers. Now that the book is launched, I’m sure we will get a steady stream. This will be fun to check out on a regular basis, right?

BENJAMIN: I’ve added a few of my own favorites to the list now, but the whole point is for readers to share their ideas. I really hope readers will visit that page and send in more suggestions. More importantly, I hope they will get the book and read the whole section on music and singing.

DAVID: We should point out that this Caregivers project is big! It will expand through 2012, so eventually there will be as many as six books in this series—and lots of new web content is coming throughout this winter. So, stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit—and order these books as they become available. Just last month, we published the first book in this Caregivers series: Guide for Grief.

At first glance, these topics may seem distinctively different, but the big uniting principle is that reaching out to caregivers—and people receiving care—is the greatest spiritual challenge of this decade in America.


BENJAMIN: Being a caregiver myself—and working on this book—these experiences have brought me a number of insights. One very important insight is the difference between religion and spirituality. In the past, like many, I enjoyed splitting hairs about the big religious questions: the nature of God, beliefs about heaven and hell and so on. As a caregiver, though, that no longer interested me. I needed to live my life in a way that gave me a reason to wake up each morning with energy for a new day—and to go to bed each night feeling that I had been a blessing and had been blessed in the way I cared for my wife. So, while I was caring for her so intensively, I wanted to live as if God was being revealed in my life through my journey of seeking compassion and concern for my spouse.

As they say in AA, “Religion is for those who want to stay out of Hell; Spirituality is for those who have already been there.” What we have in the pages of this Guide for Caregivers are the spiritual practices I find valuable to maintain a healthy spirit when your caregiver duties and responsibilities are dragging you down.


DAVID: And that final phrase is now the subtitle of the book. Of course, many of our readers know that this is your second book in three years. You published Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass in 2008. Now you are releasing A Guide For Caregivers. Some folks are already commenting that you couldn’t have chosen two more different subjects. I’m sure you’ll beg to differ, right?

BENJAMIN: At first blink this may look like two completely different subjects, but actually reading these two books reveals at least one major unifying theme in both books. What got me really interested in the James Bond novels was the number of times that the actual word accidie (often spelled acedia) appears as a motivator of Bond and his most evil enemies. Accidie is one of the traditional deadly sins that describes a loss of faith in the goodness of God, a spiritual dryness, a loss of joy in life, lethargy, boredom, cynicism about life and relationships. That Fleming made this a central descriptor of his most evil characters is what set me on the trail of discovering his oft missed purpose in writing the adventure tales of James Bond. But, examine the description of accidie above and you have the unfortunate condition of the spirit of countless caregivers, too. I have attempted in both books to help folks understand and counter accidie in our lives.  Accidie is a spiritual issue and needs spiritual practices to combat it.

Care to read more on Caregiving?

Guide for Caregivers: Learn about this very helpful book and online project.

Guide for Caregivers: Songs to remember our hope—including songs you can hear right now.

Guide for Grief: Help in Surviving the Stages of Grief and Bereavement after a Loss.

Check out Caregivers on Facebook.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

See the new Ed Dobson ‘It Ain’t Over’ videos that have everyone buzzing from the Today Show to RTSpirit

Dr. Ed Dobson, one of America’s most beloved pastors and a best-selling author, is dying.
(Don’t confuse Ed with the politically controversial Dr. James Dobson. Ed is the bearded, bespectacled pastor who once mentored Rob Bell and recently wrote a best-seller about devoting a year to living like Jesus.)

Ed Dobson already has defied the odds in his battle with ALS, the disorder that eventually will end his life (but seems to be moving slowly in Ed’s case).
Ed was diagnosed with ALS more than 10 years ago. Now, the ALS has progressed so far that he needs help with tasks like buttoning his shirt each day. However, he’s still able to walk and talk and spends a significant amount of each week counseling with men and women facing similarly dire life crises.

Now, Ed is giving to the world a series of short videos about lessons he is learning in the midst of crisis. On Oct. 17, 2011, Kathie Lee Gifford interviewed Ed on the NBC Today Show. He first sparked the attention of national news media with his 2009 book, The Year of Living like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do. However, the Today Show only was able to show a brief clip.

Here is the entire first film:



VISIT ED DOBSON ONLINE: The films will be going live, one by one, via Ed’s Story.

READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH ED DOBSON: Later this week, Ed visits for our weekly interview.

BUY THE DVD: While the movies all will be streaming free online, eventually, a complete version of the first three films is available on DVD, via Amazon, under the title Ed’s Story: It Ain’t Over, Consider the Birds, & Be There

Please help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Guide for Grief, 2: Rodger Murchison and grief ministry

ROGER MURCHISON, author of Guide for Grief, prepares for a television interview about the launch of the book and online community of readers sharing ideas for grief ministry, which will expand through 2011-2012.Why read about grief?
Because everyone dies and, before that, everyone grieves.
We are helping!
ReadTheSpirit is proud to publish Guide for Grief: Help in Surviving the Stages of Grief and Bereavement after a Loss.” This book represents years of work by Georgia-based pastor Rodger Murchison, who earned his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary specializing in ministry with grieving families. His research into grief counseling now spans work in both American and British universities, including Oxford University. This week, we are publishing Guide for Grief; we encourage you to order a copy by clicking on the book cover below.

PART 1 in this introductory series is Editor David Crumm’s report on the importance of grief ministry.
PART 2, meet Rodger Murchison as he personally introductes Guide for Grief.
PART 3, coming soon, is our ReadTheSpirit author interview with Rodger Murchison.

Rodger Murchison’s
Own Introduction to
“Guide for Grief:
Help in surviving
the stages of grief
and bereavement
after a loss”

Timothy often took a lawn chair to the cemetery to sit by Sally’s grave and talk to her. He’d tell her what he had been doing and how much he loved her. He often left the cemetery in tears. They had been married 32 years. Two years after her death, Timothy still grieved her loss. The grief was understandable and even the frequent cemetery visits. Then, I discovered that he broke off every new relationship in his life and his cemetery visits were a time when he cleansed himself of guilt he felt for allowing new friends into his life. Something was wrong. Timothy was stuck in grief.

Millions of people seek out pastors and other counselors after the loss of loved ones, asking for help in moving through their journey with grief. Most stories are not as unusual as Timothy’s. Sometimes, people find themselves stuck in other phases of grief. After a heart-breaking loss, many people lash out in anger at God—a normal part of the grieving process—but some turn this anger into a mantra of woe. Their anger at God over their loss can spill into every area of their lives.

While the process of grieving varies widely, it does follow predictable patterns for most people. When the progression toward healing is obstructed, people need help in getting unstuck.

Most Americans have heard that there are “stages” to grief, typically referring to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ landmark five-stage process: denial, anger, bargaining, guilt or depression and acceptance. But most people are unaware of the ever-growing body of research into grief. There are other ways of describing and engaging with the predictable patterns of grief. There are many well-tested techniques that can be helpful. A person who is stuck in grief may be assuming that Kübler-Ross’ five phases are set in stone—a staircase out of grief chiseled out for everyone in all situations. If they find themselves looping back through phases, or skipping others, they may become discouraged that they are not correctly marching up the steps. We can make a big difference in people’s lives simply by helping families understand that there are various models for grief and our journey is not as clear-cut as climbing a staircase.

Because Americans fear aging and dread the inevitable truth of death—few of us learn about or prepare for the end that comes to all of us. Professionals have developed a wide array of counseling techniques to help people move through this universal journey of grief. In this book, I explain a number of these techniques for general readers—such as “reframing.” Using this technique, people are invited to focus on their loss from a fresh perspective. This does not bring our loved one back to life. What changes are the ways we look at our loss, understand the loss, and respond to the loss. Just as a painting takes on new dimensions when given a new frame, people who reframe their grief can discover new sources of strength.

This example of reframing is both wise psychological practice and a truth deeply rooted in scripture. The author of Hebrews tells us: “If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desired a better country.” (Hebrews 11:15-16) Instead of bemoaning the loss of comforts in their previous land (as the Moses-led Israelites did many years later), the writer of Hebrews is telling us that Abraham’s people trusted that God was leading and blessing them. For Abraham, the “promised land” was more than a new place in which to dwell, it was also a reality of mind and heart—reframing life in the belief that God had called him to a significant new life. Traumatic moments change people’s lives. They change people’s views of God, of themselves and of life. Rather than battling to resist those changes, reframing frees a person to grow through them. Abraham understood that timeless truth—although he obviously did not coin the term we use today to describe it.

After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote poignantly in his book A Grief Observed
that grief painfully opens up our lives to fresh insights about our past and fresh hopes for the future. We mourn our loss, but grief also leads us to new vistas.

This book is designed to nudge these travelers in healthy directions, tested through the millennia by people of faith and undergirded by years of research into identifying and teaching these techniques to men and women. You will find cutting-edge scholarship referenced throughout this book—and a list of recommended readings from those scholars at the end of this book. You also will find helpful references from scripture. In these chapters, I suggest many techniques you can use, and I close each chapter with a prayer, inviting you to join me in these prayers. I welcome you to print them out and place them on your dinner table, fold them into a frequently read book or hang them in your home as a reminder.

Over time, you will find more resources at a website we will be building:
As we launch the book, that URL initially takes readers to the main ReadTheSpirit online magazine, where our introductory stories are appearing. Eventually, a larger GuideForGrief website will publish online resources including a small-group study guide, plus suggestions of helpful organizations and websites. Although Americans fear death, congregational leaders will discover that organizing a small-group series around this book—or the formation of a grief-ministry support group that starts with a study of this book—will prove to be a potent outreach program in your community.

We welcome your ideas and questions at our website. I look forward to hearing from you online.

(Email us at [email protected] with questions or suggestions.)

Roger B. Murchison

How to order Guide for Grief

E-EDITIONS OF GUIDE FOR GRIEF: Soon, Guide for Grief will be available for all E-readers.

GUIDE FOR GRIEF: Visit Amazon to order your copy of Guide for Grief, Help in Surviving the Stages of Grief and Bereavement after a Loss.

GUIDE FOR GRIEF (Deluxe Color Edition): Soon, Guide for Grief also will be available in a full-color edition, featuring 10 inspirational, full-page paintings by Sara Pollock Searle designed to enrich readers’ reflections on overcoming grief.

Rodger Murchison’s speaking schedule

RODGER MURCHISON speaks widely about helping families survive grief, based on his decades of experience working with families and researching the latest findings on grief ministry. He has appeared on television and radio, has written for national magazines—and has lectured at universities and national conferences on ministry. He will return to lecture at Oxford University in 2012. While Rodger is comfortable in professional and academic settings, his welcoming approach to sharing helpful stories also make him popular with audiences of families looking for practical and inspirational ideas in coping with grief. He also has many years of experience in helping to develop grief-ministry workshops. To inquire about his speaking schedule, email us at [email protected]

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Good Grief! Let us help you with grief now … before …

DANSE MACABRE from the 13th-Century Church of St. Nicholas in Tallinn Estonia. These elaborate artworks spread through churches in Europe, reminding men and women to prepare for grief as a natural part of life. In one Danse Macabre scene, Death comes for an Emperor, captioned with the lines: “Emperor, your sword won’t help you out; Scepter and crown are worthless here; I’ve taken you by the hand; For you must come to my dance.” Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Why read about grief? Because we’re all going to die and, before that, we’re all going to grieve as others die around us. Most Americans hate to even think about aging—let alone dying—so we have become a dramatically aging nation poorly prepared for the losses ahead of us.

We can help! For two years, ReadTheSpirit has been working with Georgia-based pastor Rodger Murchison to produce our new Guide for Grief: Help in Surviving the Stages of Grief and Bereavement after a Loss. Not only has Rodger specialized in working with grieving families and grief-ministry workshops for many years, but he earned his doctorate from Princeton Theological Seminary specializing in ministry with grieving families. His research into grief counseling spans work in both American and British universities, including the resources of Oxford University. This week, we are publishing this long-awaited book and we encourage you to order a copy by simply clicking on the book’s cover at right.

Rodger Murchison’s
“Guide for Grief:
Help in surviving
the stages of grief
and bereavement
after a loss,” Part 1

PART 1, today, is ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s introduction
PART 2, Meet Rodger Murchison in a personal introduction from the author.
PART 3, coming soon, is our author interview with Rodger Murchison on his new Guide for Grief.

Everyone dies.
Every family grieves.
There is no other pastoral challenge as universal as death. This truth is so simple and powerful that medieval churches often displayed vivid images of Danse Macabre, the Dance of Death. In stained glass windows, tapestries or murals, a skeletal or sometimes a dark-robed grim reaper moved through the world calling everyone of every age and social status.

Today, no American church architect would propose decorating with Danse Macabre. Americans are terrified of admitting that we are aging, let alone dying. Before I became Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine and books, I was a journalist who specialized in reporting on religious issues for newspapers. One year, I worked with a team of investigative reporters studying every family who visited Dr. Jack Kevorkian for assistance in suicide. We found that some families were so terrified of death that a mere diagnosis of a scary disorder drove a loved one to suicide. The greater tragedy we uncovered in our reporting is that, in some instances, the dead man or woman was misdiagnosed and had years to live. They rushed to end their lives out of the sheer terror of contemplating a slower death. What happened after these deaths? None of the Kevorkian families were convicted of a crime, of course, but their reactions to these deaths were so intense that many families found themselves locked in a prison of grief. Yes, Kevorkian and his clients do represent an extreme response to death and grief. But they also illustrate the depth of the American anxiety concerning all things having to do with death.

In his new Guide for Grief, the Rev. Rodger Murchison describes how easily all families—ordinary families like yours and mine—can fall into negative patterns of grief. Of course, grief is not only natural, it is essential. Grief is both a painful and a healthy part of life.

“Grief is the price we pay for love,” Queen Elizabeth II told the world after the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. Right now, one in three American households includes a person who is a full-time caregiver for someone with a chronic and, in many cases, a life-threatening condition. The American population is aging at a relentless rate as Baby Boomers finally confront their own mortality. All of us who love will grieve—and our grief may run far longer than many of our friends will understand. We all need help in exploring the universal journey of grief.

This guide takes a Christian approach to death and grieving. That’s the religious affiliation voiced by 4 out of 5 Americans, according to research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Families who are not Christian also will benefit from these basic, well-tested principles, which Rodger Murchison has gleaned from ancient traditions as well as the latest scholarly research into coping with grief.

How to order Guide for Grief

E-EDITIONS OF GUIDE FOR GRIEF: Soon, Guide for Grief will be available for all E-readers.

GUIDE FOR GRIEF: Visit Amazon to order your copy of Guide for Grief, Help in Surviving the Stages of Grief and Bereavement after a Loss.

GUIDE FOR GRIEF (Deluxe Color Edition): Soon, Guide for Grief also will be available in a full-color edition, featuring 10 inspirational, full-page paintings by Sara Pollock Searle designed to enrich readers’ reflections on overcoming grief.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Novelist, theologian Philip Gulley says we’re evolving

Last week, in our interview with award-winning filmmaker Helen Whitney, she argued that the world is getting better. Throughout most of history, world leaders have never felt they needed to apologize for crimes against humanity. Might made right until our modern era dating from Nuremberg to the fall of Communism, Apartheid and now the Arab Spring.

THIS WEEK, we welcome back beloved Quaker novelist and provocative theologian Philip Gulley, who is arguing that our religion also needs to get better. Our understanding of thelogy needs to evolve, he writes in The Evolution of Faith: How God Is Creating a Better Christianity. Here’s the best part! We’ve all got a role to play in this. Gulley takes a very dim view of people who think that theology is just for specialists with a doctorate degree. (Of course, if you’ve enjoyed Gulley’s series of Harmony Novels, then you already know that he places great faith in wisdom discerned in the grassroots.)

Does this sound familiar? Remember our interviews with Harvey Cox or with Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr?


In this passage, which appears early in his new book, Gulley writes about stumbling across a lengthy theological thesis he wrote in his final year of graduate studies. He was startled to find how much his religious views have changed in 17 years! From his book …

I felt energized by my theological journey, believing it revealed a vitality and passion often lacking in my more orthodox days. I had pitched my tent in a new, yet unexplored land, was pleased to be there, and wanted to investigate it further and map that territory for others by writing books such as this one.

Even as I reflected on the theological evolution in my life, I was also conscious of the language of my thesis, noting it was incomprehensible to anyone who hadn’t studied theology. I obviously wanted to show my professors I was well versed in theological jargon. Of course, one purpose of higher education is to teach a student the specific language of a given field. Medical students learn the language of anatomy and medicine. Law students become conversant in legal terminology. Those of us who study God learn the language of theology. But unlike the fields of medicine and law, people who haven’t formally studied theology feel not only perfectly equipped, but duty bound, to engage in religious discourse. This is a compliment to our vocation—that those not schooled in the field wish to engage it. Unfortunately, we’ve not always made their participation easy, using language they neither know nor speak. Consider one of the more influential theologians of he past hundred years, Karl Barth, whose signature work Church Dogmatics was 13 volumes containing over 6 million words. He worked on it for 36 years and when he died still wasn’t done. Many words can be said about Barth’s work, but “accessible” isn’t one of them. One has to wonder whether some who work in theology erect such barriers for the express purpose of excluding others, preferring the rarified air of theological speculation over a helpful, accessible spirituality.

The harm this causes is obvious—by excluding so many people from theological exploration, we increase the theological ignorance of our society, making people especially vulnerable to bad theology and unscrupulous purveyors of self-serving religion. …

I would like to think that a well-reasoned theology, and the more enlightened aspects of religious tradition, can provide a helpful way forward for those of us who seek transcendent meaning, spiritual community and joy.

For too many years Christianity has been more about constraint and less about liberation. Bound by dated creeds, traditions and doctrines, the Christianity of the past has held too many of its disciples back, not carried them forward. This book is an invitation for you to consider your faith in a fresh way, informed by common sense, positive tradition, and personal experience. It represents, in a very real sense, an evolution of Christian faith.


Care to read more about Quaker author Philip Gulley?

READ OUR 2010 INTERVIEW: Philip Gulley talks about his earlier book If the Church Were Christian and we also share a brief excerpt of that book.

VISIT PHILIP GULLEY’S OWN WEBSITE: In partnership with his publisher, Philip Gulley provides lots of information on his own website.

GET THE BOOK: Order Evolution of Faith: How God Is Creating a Better Christianity—from Amazon now.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Spiritual Puzzles of Jack Kevorkian 1928-2011

Jack Kevorian’s Spiritual Legacy:
A Painful Tattoo, Bones in the Pocket & the Mystery of Death

JACK KEVORKIAN earlier this year. Photographer Gevorg Gevorgyan http://ggprophoto.comJack Kevorkian finally knows the answer to his life’s biggest question: “I’ve been fascinated by death because I wondered what the unknown was that’s facing me,” Kevorkian testified in a 1994 hearing. “Also, I’m a medical doctor, death is a part of my profession, and we don’t know anything about it. … If you know what death is, you know what life is.”

Unfortunately, none of us who so closely covered his long career in assisted suicide—eventually claiming well over 100 deaths—can interview Jack now.

But, one thing is clear. Attempts to paint the Kevorkian story as a contest between an angry skeptic and his religious enemies are way off the mark. As a journalist who reported on spiritual responses to Kevorkian over many years, I was responsible for recording many of those religious blasts in the public square. Over the years, the loudest religious response was voiced—and was well financed—by Detroit’s Catholic Cardinal Adam Maida, who eventually retired in 2009. In the 1990s, Maida organized a statewide campaign in Michigan and an entire interfaith coalition of religious leaders to condemn Kevorkian and assisted suicide. For his part, Kevorkian usually responded to religious leaders with acid-tipped barbs.

In one news report about Maida’s decision to fund a multi-media campaign against Kevorkian, I quoted Maida as saying that assisted suicide was a slippery slope toward euthanasia and abusive engineering of human life. “We could have people making decisions for us about who can come into life and how we go out of it,” Maida said in our interview.

When I asked Kevorkian about this, he snapped back: “Maida is about as relevant to this issue as he is to a heart operation.”

Maida responded that Kevorkian was wrong. This question is part of a global concern for defending the sanctity of human rights against powerful forces that the 20th Century proved were fully capable of large-scale human-rights abuses. “This is rooted in our understanding of who we are as human beings,” Maida told me. “In abortion and in assisted suicide, we’ve got basic human rights we’re trying to address.”

But that’s not the only spiritual frame through which the Kevorkian debate was viewed by American families. To this day, millions of men and women simply have no idea where to turn for spiritual advice on difficult end-of-life decisions. As a careful observer of religious media, I can tell you: Even as Americans collectively age and face these decisions in growing numbers—there’s a yawning lack of responsible religious counseling on these issues affecting millions.

Kevorkian and the Woman Who Carried Bones in Her Pocket

What haunts me in remembering Kevorkian are the men and women I met who, like Kevorkian, were honest about the mystery of the Big Unknown—who desperately and sometimes poignantly searched for spiritual as well as physical answers.

Let’s be honest: For all his bluster, Kevorkian cared little about the spiritual side of life. When he talked about such matters, he was blunt as a sledgehammer and often went out of his way to offend traditionally religious people.

I was part of the Detroit Free Press’ long-term investigative team that studied scores of cases in which Kevorkian helped people kill themselves. Our team discovered that a shocking portion of the people Kevorkian helped to kill were, in fact, not terminally ill. They might have had years of life left, despite their conditions. And, in some extreme cases, our team found, people were so terrified and depressed about their possible medical conditions that they ended their lives—only to have an autopsy prove that they weren’t physically ill at all! Despite his claims of elaborate ethical codes, Kevorkian managed death like an assembly-line foreman—often paying little attention to people’s physical and mental conditions and sometimes leaving their remains in ghastly settings.

That’s what led so many of the surviving families, who returned home after Kevorkian suicides, to invent their own spiritual responses. That’s what led to the woman with the painful tattoo—and the woman who carried bones in her pocket.

If you care to research Kevorkian’s career, you’ll find the full names of these unfortunate people, but in this story I’ll use only first names.

In 1996, Rebecca was a California woman who killed herself with Kevorkian’s help because she believed that “excruciating” multiple sclerosis already had destroyed her quality of life. However, her autopsy later showed that, while she may have been psychologically disturbed, she was “robust,” “fairly healthy” and had no signs of MS.

Through this traumatic process, Rebecca’s daughter Christy—who had assisted her Mom in reaching Jack—suffered an agonizing spiritual struggle before settling upon her own private memorial to her mother.

Way back in the good years with her mother, Rebecca and Christy had enjoyed the ocean. So, Christy decided to have a huge tattoo of the ocean floor permanently etched into her back. “There’s a starfish and a sand dollar and there’s a big seahorse with bubbles coming out of its mouth. It’s really colorful and shows everything my mom would love,” Christy told me.

Part of establishing this memorial in skin were the hours Christy forced herself to lay still as tiny needles pressed the dyes into her skin. The pain became a penitential rite. In fact, she couldn’t complete it as soon as she had hoped, Christy told me—the pain was too intense. Eventually, Christy planned to keep returning to the artist until the ocean scene was finished with the words, “In Loving Memory: Rebecca.”

What else could Christy have done at that point? We all may have responses to her dilemma. We may scoff at anyone naïve enough to deal with the infamous “Dr. Death.” But Rebecca and Christy were women many of us might have befriended—real, loving, intelligent women simply seeking solace.

They were women like—well, like the woman with bones in her pocket. Carol is her name, the devoted mother of an ALS-suffering son who couldn’t bear to see him go through the final phases of the debilitating disorder. Her son was only 27, bedridden, unable to speak clearly or to use his fingers by the time she helped him end his life with Kevorkian’s aid. At that point, she and her son were desperate. On his own, the son had made three unsuccessful attempts at ending his life.

And yet, Carol told me, they weren’t aware of any supportive spiritual community to help them through this crisis. Many of the families who visited Kevorkian described this painful void. Suddenly, professionals were telling them that the end of life was largely a matter of managing financial crises and organizing medical services. One surviving family told me about the unbearable rudeness of technicians who came to pick up their just-deceased mother’s hospital bed. In contrast to this uncaring vacuum, even the brusque Kevorkian could seem like a savior.

Of course, Kevorkian dispensed just death—and left the surviving families in a flash. There was no ongoing care. Despite that lack of personal care, Carol remained a Kevorkian advocate after her son’s death. She told me that it was simply left to her—alone—to establish her own mourning rituals. “I just can’t get over it,” she said.

On the one-year anniversary of the suicide of Carol’s son, several relatives did decide to carry out his wishes by sprinkling his ashes from a mountaintop. But Carol was not ready to give up all of the ashes and, instead, took a small spoon and measured out 23 scoops of the ashes for the mountaintop rite.

Why 23? “Because (he) was No. 23 in Dr. Kevorkian’s series,” Carol explained.

As she examined the ashes, she discovered small bone fragments, some of them white and some of them charred black. “Now, I carry around two bone chips with me, one black and one white,” she said. “I just keep them in my pocket. This way, any time I put my hand in my pocket, there’s my son. It’s pathetic, but when it’s your son, you just don’t get over it.”

Carol was right. We don’t get over death easily—and certainly not such a traumatic death. For all of our global spiritual awareness, our collective richness of religious wisdom and our millennia-long experience with ritual and reassurance—there’s precious little being offered to such needy families today.

If you’re reading this today—and you’re involved in thoughtful ministries to aid families—then email us at [email protected] and tell us about what you’re doing and what you think about all of this. Certainly there are growing numbers of hospice programs, thousands of clergy and chaplains who do a solid job with end-of-life rituals—and many professionals researching these issues.

But as Jack Kevorkian finally gets the answer to his life’s biggest question today—June 3, 2011—perhaps it’s a moment when all of us can resolve to help our friends, our neighbors and our own families find out more about what unfolds as our lives near their conclusions.

Let’s work on it now, shall we? That is, while we’re still here to talk about it in a helpful way. We certainly can’t ask Jack what he found on the other side.

Care to read more about Kevorkian’s legacy?

You can still order a copy of The Suicide Machine by the Detroit Free Press Staff via Amazon. I wrote the chapter in that book about the spiritual and psychological legacy of Kevorkian suicides for many families.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.