Our Holiday Grab Bag of 12 Guilt-Free Gifts

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

1. VISUAL PARABLES JOURNAL

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

2. THE FLAVORS OF FAITH

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

3. BIRD ON FIRE: ‘HUNGER ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION’

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

4. LAUGH IN THE FACE OF FEAR WITH RODNEY CURTIS

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

5. RABBI BOB ALPER: ‘THANKS. I NEEDED THAT.’

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

6. ‘DISTILLED SPIRITS,’ A GIFT FROM DON LATTIN.

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

7. MARGARET PASSENGER: ‘FINDING OURSELVES IN THE BIBLE’

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

8. A Rare Story of Jesus as a Boy

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

9. Fran McKendree helps out with a song

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

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

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

11. Don’t Forget the Caregivers!

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

12. Join MSU in Celebrating American Diversity

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

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

The Rodney Curtis interview on his Laughing in the Face of Fear trilogy

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis's author page.

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis’s author page.

Laugh in the face of fear.

Wow! Do we need this now!

Just in time for gift giving, our beloved ReadTheSpirit columnist Rodney Curtis finally has completed his trilogy of books about tackling each new day with friends, family—and laughter. That idea may sound simple, but this is deep wisdom. We all remember, “Laughter is the best medicine.” We recall how the famous journalist Norman Cousins laughed himself back to health in the 1970s—and was played by Ed Asner in the movie version of his inspiring story. Now, there’s scientific research on the value of laughter—ask Dr. Bernie Siegel, who we interviewed recently in these pages.

Rodney has weathered life’s toughest challenges—and has taken this hard-earned wisdom in a fresh direction. He invites readers to laugh along with him in these real-life stories. His books also are packed with photos and even links to audio and video.

That’s the big news from ReadTheSpirit this week: Just in time for Christmas, we are releasing Rodney Curtis’s third volume, Getting Laid (off). His first book—before Rodney was hit with the twin plagues of cancer and job loss—is Spiritual Wanderer. That was followed by A “Cute” Leukemia. Now, it’s a complete trilogy, perfect for that hard-to-shop-for friend or relative.

In this week’s Cover Story, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Rodney Curtis about this amazing and amusing journey.

HIGHLIGHTS
OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RODNEY CURTIS

DAVID: I think your books are perfect gifts for someone who desperately needs a little laughter.

RODNEY: (laughs) Oh, now that’s a pitch! Who wouldn’t want to find cancer and unemployment under their Christmas tree! Just look at what Rodney’s brought you!

DAVID: Hey, no kidding. This trio of books can be the perfect gift for a lot of hurting people. And, right now, you’ve reached a pretty wonderful milestone yourself, right? You’re feeling so good, now, that I understand you would like to be back in a classroom again in 2014, teaching college students.

RODNEY: I’m up for almost anything the future may hold.

DAVID: That phrase really does describe you as a writer: “Up for almost anything.” So, let’s begin this interview by bringing readers up to speed about your three books. I’ll ask you to describe each one. Let’s start with Spiritual Wanderer. In just a few words: What’s it about?

RODNEY: That first book is a mishmash of stories, full of my meanderings and a lot of my silliness, too. The stories go from walking my dog to really deep spiritual issues. Although, now that I think about it, we should probably put the words spiritual issues in quote marks because—when it comes to religion and me? Or, when it comes to spirituality and me? We go together like hot sauce on candy bars.

DAVID: Good point. I often tell people that Spiritual Wanderer is the first book I’ve read in years that always makes me laugh out loud. I mean, I’ve read that book a dozen times—and I still laugh when I read the story about your dogs—”Dog Duty.”

RODNEY: Yeah! That’s one of the funniest stories in that first book—and it’s absolutely true. Our dog went out in the back yard one day in December and—well, if you’re a pet lover you know what happens: The dog relieves himself—except, this time, out pops figures from our Advent calendar!

DAVID: No “spoilers” here, so we’ll leave the dog story with that one strange image. In reading that story, I’ve seen grown men and women spit their morning coffee out their noses because they get to laughing so hard. Let’s describe the second volume.

RODNEY: My next book, A “Cute” Leukemia, is about what happened when I got leukemia. The title comes from June of 2010, when I checked into the hospital and they told me, “You’ve got acute leukemia.” And my immediate thought was: “Oh, this is fun! I’ve got A ‘Cute’ Leukemia.” That’s how my mind works. My first response was to try to treat the cancer as some kind of little, tiny, ridiculous baby that was fussing at me. And you know what we’re supposed to do in those situations, right? We use good humor with a fussy baby.

Of course leukemia is a savage disease—very serious.  Yet, when you’re faced with it yourself, the question is: How do we respond? What do we do? And this humorous approach I took really did help me get through this.

DAVID: What’s the correct way to describe your relationship to leukemia today?

RODNEY: I am cured. That’s how we say it. I had a stem-cell transplant in October 2010. It is true that after some kinds of cancer treatments, people say they are in remission. That usually means the cancer isn’t visible anymore, but still may be lurking. I say: I’m cured. After a successful stem-cell transplant, the goal is to make your chances of getting cancer just like the chances for anyone else. And, that’s what happened to me. Thank goodness! Right?

DAVID: And the third book?

RODNEY: The third book, Getting Laid (off), is about just what the title says—losing your job. I worked in journalism and journalism cheated on me. I had been married to journalism for many many years and, then all at once, journalism went out and decided it didn’t want to be faithful to me anymore. It left me—and I was out.

‘A CROSS BETWEEN MITCH ALBOM & DAVE BARRY’

Rodney Curtis and Darrel Ellis Dreadlocks For LoveDAVID: I tell people that in facing all these challenges—from ordinary daily adventures to big life-threatening crises—you write like a cross between Mitch Albom and Dave Barry. You’ve got the heart of Mitch—the inspiration and the sentiment of Mitch—but you’ve also the humor of Dave. You’re funnier than Mitch and you’re often more serious than Dave. Your style is somewhere in the middle, I’d say.

RODNEY: Well, thank you for saying those very nice things. That’s high praise.

I’ve written all my life. For years, I did it in the background of my work as a photographer. I’ve always felt that writing and photography can go hand in hand. It was the fall of 2006 when I think I found my voice for real and started writing intensively at home—and couldn’t stop. I’d be out mowing my lawn and I’d think of something—and I’d just have to write it down. That was really an epic change for me. I’m amazingly thankful for all of that.

DAVID: When you write, you often write funny stuff—but these aren’t joke books. You’re not going for a laugh specifically. You’re more of a storyteller than a jokester.

RODNEY: That’s how I think of what I’m writing. I tell stories I’d like to hear. I like to hear people tell real stories about their lives, so I write stories about my real experiences. I’d probably be a failure as a fiction writer. And, no, I don’t set out to tell jokes. I’m sharing stories and I am inviting readers to have fun with me.

DAVID: Tell us the story behind the hair photo, in the cancer book, which took place when you were losing your own hair. One day, you decided to share someone else’s hair.

RODNEY: That was the day in July of 2010, when my friend from the Detroit News, Darrel Ellis, visited me along with his wife Leslie. He had these long, long dreadlocks and I was mostly bald by that time. I said, “Oh, man, Darrel! I wish I had your hair!”

Then, we said: “Wait a minute! We’ve got a camera. This can happen!” We lay down on the bed and his wife snapped that photo.

I think that photo epitomizes my stay in the hospital—which my family and I often called the hotel. From my first day in the hotel, I tried to follow the advice: “Make it your own. Be Rodney.”

DAVID: What does that mean? “Make it your own.”

RODNEY: My aunt works for the Mayo clinic and she happens to study my exact illness. She told me, “You’re going to be in the hospital for a while. Try not to wear hospital clothes and lay there all the time. Wear your own clothes. Move around.” I did listen to what she told me. She said, “Be Rodney.”

DAVID: That matches up with a lot of other advice we’ve published in WeAreCaregivers, which is hosted by Heather Jose, and I know that she’s asked you to write a guest column for WeAreCaregivers about this very issue. So, I’ll recommend that to readers.

The attitude you’re describing here really shines through in your book, A “Cute” Leukemia.

RODNEY: It was therapy for me simply to put together that book—one story and photo and media clip at a time. And I’ve already heard from readers that it has helped them, too, as they try to deal with what really is a dreaded and deadly disease. My father died of lung cancer at age 56, so I know all about the tragic side of cancer. I dreaded it like nobody’s business. When I faced it myself, I said: “This is huge. This is my choice, now, as to whether this will be the end—or it will be the beginning of something new.”

And, believe me: I wanted this to lead to something new!

DAVID: We just published an interview with Dr. Bernie Siegel, who was widely slammed by his colleagues when he began writing about his unorthodox approaches to healing. Now, in fact, a lot of his early unorthodox ideas have become by-the-book orthodox approaches to healing. With Bernie, we talked about this whole history of changing perceptions. We talked about Norman Cousins, who checked himself into a hotel room and got—at that time—a bunch of VHS tapes of funny TV programs. He insisted that laughter was a huge part of healing. Cousins was slammed, too, at the time. Now, Bernie Siegel points out that no one doubts this wisdom, anymore. I see you in this tradition of Norman Cousins, coming at this from a journalistic perspective. Now, there’s even solid research into the benefits of intentional laughter—actually helping yourself by making yourself laugh.

In your case, Rodney, you were confined for a long time, right? You were laughing in some very tough situations.

RODNEY: I was in three different facilities. The first one was for six weeks night and day. Then, a second time I was in for several days. And, finally, I was in for about a month.

DAVID: You spent about three months in hospitals in 2010.

RODNEY: That’s right. And the staff loved the way I approached this. They laughed with me. You know, at the end of that year, a bunch of them came to my house and surprised me with some Christmas presents. It was amazing! I made friends I continue to chat with on a daily basis, several years later.

‘Ello, I’m Nigel! (and other tales of comic coping)

DAVID: Self image is a big part of this. It’s tough to see yourself change so dramatically. Hair loss is a big issue.

RODNEY: Some of my friends began bringing me funny wigs. I remember one time, they brought me this wig that made me look like some kind of aging British rocker. That led to this whole story I spun out of being just that—not Rodney in the hospital with leukemia, but a British rock star in rehab. I had this IV pole with me all the time, at that point, and I remember I put on the wig and grabbed my IV pole, which I called, “Ivy.” I found these crazy Elton John-style glasses. And, that day, we wandered around the wards with me appearing as this wild old rock star. “‘Ello, I’m Nigel!” I’d say in this crazy accent. The nurses got into it and pulled out their camera phones. They were the paparazzi. It made us all happy. We all felt a lot of caring and a lot of love that day.

DAVID: I know you live your life this way, every day, wherever you are. But let’s address those readers who are saying: “Well, of course, Rodney can do this. He’s a funny guy. I’m not funny. My family isn’t funny. And these things he’s writing about—cancer or losing your job—those certainly aren’t funny.”

RODNEY: I’d say, “OK, well, humor may not be your thing. So, find your own thing and focus on it.” Music is great and a lot of people enjoy singing. They may not be great musicians who can play an instrument—but singing is a lot of fun. Anybody can sing. Do you like poetry? A lot of people write or read poetry. Maybe sports is your thing. So, focus on sports. Talk about sports with the people you encounter; keep up on sports. Ask yourself: What’s my passion? What can I focus on, every day, that makes me as happy as possible?

DAVID: What prepared you for this approach to life? Let’s go back for a moment. You’ve got some stories sprinkled through your three books about your childhood and early family life. Now, I’m 58 and I grew up, I’d say, in a Leave-It-to-Beaver-era home. You’re about a decade younger than me. So, did you grow up in a Brady Bunch home?

RODNEY: Yeah, Brady Bunch and maybe a little Partridge Family thrown in there, as well.

DAVID: So, one thing that never happened in those classic TV shows was: cancer. And, of course, none of the Dads or Moms in TV families had to worry about job loss. I guess the Partridge Family did have a single Mom raising her pop-star kids. But these huge anxieties so many of us face now—cancer and job loss—are things that in many ways we were not well equipped to anticipate in the eras when we were growing up.

RODNEY: Yeah, the anxiety is huge. And it hits you hard. And most of us aren’t prepared. It’s especially bad when you start to think: You’re someone’s father. You’re someone’s husband.

Comparing the two—job loss and cancer—I have to say that the cancer diagnosis is many rungs higher on the anxiety ladder than job loss. You’re suddenly faced with a life-or-death situation. To this day, I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve got all the anxiety resolved. The stresses still arise in my life—and this is long after the trauma with cancer—when I sit there recalling it for some reason. The worst for me is realizing how unfair this was for my daughters. I feel bad that they had to face this with me.

When you lose your job, you feel like you’ve let down your family and that’s terrible. Then, with cancer, especially if you’ve got kids at home like I did, this feels like you’ve let down your family 10 fold more than that! Thankfully, my family and I, now, have gone through these deep black holes together—job loss and cancer—and now, as we’re sitting here talking, I think I can say we’re all safely out the other side.

You can get through this. If I’ve got one message in all of this, that’s it: Yes, you can get through this.

DAVID:  See, that’s not a bad message to wrap up and put under your Christmas tree this season: Life’s tough. But, you know what? We can get through this.

Care to read more from Rodney?

VISIT RODNEY CURTIS’S AUTHOR PAGE IN OUR BOOKSTORE: Learn more about Rodney; read sample chapters—and use the easy links in our bookstore to buy copies of his book through Amazon, Barnes &  Noble or other retailers. (Yes, you can buy print or e-editions.)

ENJOY RODNEY CURTIS’S LATEST COLUMNS: His department within ReadTheSpirit has been a favorite destination for our readers over many years.

READ & SHARE RODNEY CURTIS’S ADVICE FOR CAREGIVERS: His new guest column in our WeAreCaregivers department contains some of Rodney’s savvy advice that you’re sure to want to share with friends.

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

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

Interactive Humor: The Broom, Part 2

By BENJAMIN PRATT

AND THE WINNER IS …

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 ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Benjamin Pratt: Had enough time weeping? Try laughter.

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

Interactive Humor: The Broom

By BENJAMIN PRATT

EVERYTHING HAS ITS TIME:
“a time to weep, and a time to laugh”
Ecclesiastes 3:4

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

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

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

Bo Bartlett's Laughing Jesus in the collection of the Churches of the Frescoes in North Carolina.

Bo Bartlett’s Laughing Jesus in the collection of the Churches of the Frescoes in North Carolina.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BROOM: THE PRIZE

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

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

Michelangelo Creation with Broom

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

A Hanukkah tale of lights, trees—and surprising gifts

RABBI BOB ALPER is a standup comedian who is famous for touring the country with interfaith comedy shows, often performing with a Christian and a Muslim comedian. You might have heard him on satellite radio, where his standup routines are part of the clean comedy channel. Most importantly, Bob’s work is unique because he also is an ordained and active clergyman. His humor is warmed with a deep commitment to faith. This story appears in Bob’s book, “Thanks. I Need That.

Mrs. Steinberg’s Christmas Tree

By Rabbi Bob Alper

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_hanukkah_candle_burning.jpgQuestion: Which Jewish holiday most closely parallels Christmas?
Answer: Not Hanukkah.

Sure, Hanukkah and Christmas have a few elements in common: both are winter solstice events, successors to the pagan rites of lighting bonfires in an effort to rekindle the increasingly absent sun (it works, by the way; on December 22, the days start to lengthen). Both make use of plenty of candles, or candle-shaped lightbulbs. Both involve gift exchanges, though Hanukkah is a latecomer to this tradition.

But it’s Passover, not Hanukkah that offers the most similarities to Christmas. Passover: a holiday of special food, of remarkable smells, of family centered traditions, of memories heaped upon memories. Passover is the Jewish homecoming, the ingathering, based on an historical and theological event upon which the religion was constructed.

Like Christmas.

Always an adaptable, creative people, Jews of the last two generations have invigorated little, rather unimportant Hanukkah (it’s not even mentioned in the Hebrew Bible) until it’s become nearly competitive with cousin Christmas. What has always been a minor Jewish holiday has been injected with steroids.

And in the myth department, Jews have gone even one step further: while Christian children realize by age six or so (earlier, if they have a cynical older sibling) that Santa is a fable, many Jews actually go through their entire lives thinking that the so-called “miracle” of the oil lamp was an historical and theological event. (It wasn’t. The story was simply a cute legend, added hundreds of years after the Maccabbean revolt. Sorry if your fantasy has been crushed.)

For Jewish kids, especially Jewish kids like me in the early 1950s, December was a tough month, our feeble little holiday contrasting flimsily against our Christian friends’ major joyfest. I even have a vague memory of making a modified advent wreath of paper rings in one public school classroom. Every day for several weeks, each of us pulled off one paper ring, watching the object grow smaller and smaller, until, at the very end, it would be CHRISTMAS! Hooray!! (Oh, except for you, Bobby.)

Back then our family rented a second floor flat on Luzon Avenue in Providence, RI, just across the street from the John Howland Elementary School. I was in the first grade, my sister in the third. The flat below was occupied by the landlord and landlady, Mr. and Mrs. Steinberg.

My mother was what we now call a “stay-at-home mom,” only in the early fifties, she and her ilk were called housewives. Friendly and gregarious, she always had a full social life and a huge number of friends. Except for Mrs. Steinberg. Mom and the landlady didn’t hit it off very well, possibly because, from the day we moved in, the woman downstairs repeatedly slammed a broomstick into her ceiling every time my sister or I dared walk down our uncarpeted hallway wearing anything more than socks.

Some neighbor.

Within a few months, we moved to another home, but before we could depart, Mrs. Steinberg launched one more missile at our family.

Friday, December 22, 1950. Hanukkah had ended, and Christmas was now right around the corner. School vacation began mid-day, soon after the traditional morning Christmas assembly. Hundreds of excited children bearing holiday artwork streamed through John Howland’s doors, followed shortly afterward by their grateful teachers.

My mother had a weekly appointment at the beauty parlor every Friday afternoon. Hair and nails had to be just right, in preparation for the approaching Sabbath. Our teenage babysitter, also beginning vacation, was enlisted to watch us for the two hours. A typical gloomy New England winter day, we played indoors.

The boredom was broken when, shortly after my mother departed, an unexpected peal of the door chimes summoned the three of us down the stairs and into the front hallway. Through the glass, we could see our neighbor, Mrs. Steinberg, patiently awaiting. A benign half smile across her lips, she juggled a small box and…my heart began to beat faster…a three foot tall, green…Christmas tree!

“A special treat for Margie and Bobby,” she explained. Mrs. Steinberg worked as a teacher at an elementary school across town, and the small tree had decorated her room. Her own children were adults, no longer living at home, and, well, she knew how much the Alper children must want a Christmas tree. “And since this perfectly good tree would only have been thrown away, I thought you’d like to have it.”

If MasterCards had been around then, they could have produced this ad: A desk-size Douglas fir Christmas tree: $5.50. A small box of ornaments: $2.75. The chance to wreak havoc with the religious identity of the children of your despised neighbor: Priceless.

We accepted the items with thanks and raced up the stairs. But rather than let us set up the tree and begin decorating it, the babysitter, a smart teen, insisted that we first receive parental permission. We dialed the beauty salon and caught my mother with wet hair and wet nails. “Guess what! We got a Christmas tree! We got a Christmas tree! Mrs. Steinberg gave it to us! We can keep it, right mommy? Just this year, OK? This once?”

Mom was non-committal on the phone while she furiously rummaged through her pocketbook in a frantic search for Chooz, the antacid gum she favored.

“Don’t do anything yet. We’ll talk about it when I get home.” Mom had bought an hour’s reprieve.

We waited impatiently, staring longingly at the naked tree and imagining how enchanting it would look, set on the coffee table in the center of our living room, adorned with decorations. It didn’t even occur to us that there were no electric lights. We just wanted a Christmas tree.

During those same moments, as she sat under the sacred privacy of the salon’s hair dryer, my mother began to picture what would occur later that evening at our synagogue when she, president of the Sisterhood, and my father, past-president of the Brotherhood, entered services with their children excitedly blabbing the news about their lovely little Christmas tree.

She devised a plan.

A major commotion erupted when Mom returned, with the word “Pleeeeeze” repeated with urgent frequency. Kids’ body language appears similar when they want something really badly or when they require an immediate trip to the bathroom: a kind of low jumping, up and down, in place. And my sister and I were jumping. “Please? Can we keep it? Just this once?”

My mother seemed to be considering our request, then launched her counter-offensive. No question about it: she blindsided us with an absolutely perfect, even delicious, solution.

“It is a lovely little tree,” she began, “and it was so nice of Mrs. Steinberg to bring it to us.” (I now realize that, had my mother been of an earlier, more superstitious background, after saying that sentence she would have automatically spit three times and recited a Yiddish curse. But, third generation American that she was, all she could muster was a veiled, ironic tone, which my sister and I, in our excitement, missed.)

“But you know,” she continued, “Christmas isn’t our holiday. We have Hanukkah and Passover and Purim. And I read in yesterday’s Providence Journal that there are some children, Christian children here in Providence, who are so poor that they won’t even have a Christmas tree for their holiday.

“So, why don’t we do this: let’s decorate this tree, make it look especially nice, and then, let’s phone the police department and ask if they’ll give it to some poor children who don’t have a tree of their own?”

Touchdown. Bullseye. And grand slam. Mom scored a big one. With her clever proposition, she not only distracted us from begging to keep the tree, but diverted our focus to the point where we simply couldn’t wait to get it out of our house and on its way to other children.

Mom placed a call, while my sister and I went to work hanging Mrs. Steinberg’s ornaments on the tree, adding some of our own small objects, and gathering toys and books and games to accompany the donation. About an hour later, two very large Providence policemen, wearing their black leather jackets, with guns and nightsticks and handcuffs hanging from their belts, lumbered up the stairs. They spoke briefly with my mother and her wide-eyed children, offered some kind words of gratitude, and then departed, carrying one large bag of stuffed toys, some boxes of other gifts. And a three-foot tall, artfully decorated Douglas fir Christmas tree.

That scene remains one of the happiest memories of my childhood.

If you’re already hooked on Rabbi Bob Alper’s work … Visit his website and find out about booking one of his comedy shows in your part of the country. His new book for ReadTheSpirit is coming—God willing—in 2013. But his earlier book—Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This: The Holiness of Little Daily Dramas—is available from Amazon now.

Meet James Martin SJ, bringing laughter back to church

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1207_Father_James_Martin_SJ.jpgFATHER JAMES MARTIN SJ. Photo courtesy of Martin and his publisher.Father James Martin SJ, best-selling author of an earlier book on world-famous saints, now is focusing his attention on the millions of living saints who fill the pews in our houses of worship each week—often with the grim resolve that going to church is the right thing to do. Martin argues that our real goal, far more often than we allow it in church, should be joy, not somber duty. And that joy should include bringing more humor and outright laughter back to church.

(MAY 2012 UPDATE: James Martin’s earlier bestseller, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, is now available in paperback from Amazon.)

Earlier this week, we reported on Martin’s new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.
To spark your interest, we even published the first Q and A from this interview on Monday.
AND—psssst!If you jump back and check the Monday story, you’ll find that we also shared several amusing stories from his book.

Now, meet the Jesuit priest, journalist and best-selling author who prefers that people simply call him “Jim” in our interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH FATHER JAMES MARTIN SJ
ON BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH

DAVID: Of all the many subjects you write about, concerning Christianity and our culture, why did you think a book on using humor in the church was the most important thing to publish right now?

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1207_cover_Between_Heaven_and_Mirth_joy_with_saints_James_Martin.jpgJIM: I traveled a lot around the country, talking to groups about my earlier book, My Life with the Saints. I discovered that what people most wanted to hear were stories about the ways saints led joyful lives. They also were very interested in saints’ senses of humor and jokes they made—how the saints praised laugher. I realized that we are all facing two big problems. First, most Christian groups are rather in the dark about this aspect of the lives of saints. But, second and much more of problem: The idea of being joyful in church is a foreign idea to most Christians! It was almost as though I needed to give them permission to enjoy a good joke with the saints, to show their sense of humor and to laugh out loud in church. If you doubt that this is a problem, just take a look at the artwork in most churches. There are far too many sad and tortured-looking saints. Some of these saints had such a sweet nature and enjoyed a good laugh at the humor of life, yet we have captured them forever in images that glower at us.

DAVID: Lots of people are interested in this new book. For example, you’ve already appeared on the Colbert Report, talking about this with Stephen Colbert. We will provide readers a link to that video clip at the end of our own interview. I was impressed that Colbert calls you “The Chaplain of the Colbert Nation.” Hey, that’s a great responsibility, right?

JIM: Yes, it is! I’ve been on the Colbert Report a number of times over the years. I was on once talking about Mother Teresa, once about the pope’s visit to the United States, once talking about poverty. I’ve been on the show maybe four or five times.

A STORY ABOUT MARY THAT WE SHOULDN’T MISS

DAVID: In this new book, you give individual readers—and book-discussion groups—lots of choices of material within a single volume. First of all, as we’ve already told readers, there is a lot of humor in the book. It’s simply fun reading. But then you give us various chapters on, for example: reading the Bible with a fresh eye for the humor. In other sections, you address direct questions readers may have like: “I’m not a funny person. How do I learn to tell jokes?” And, here’s one that especially caught my eye: You write about humor in the Visitation—and you urge readers not to miss the entire version of Mary’s hymn of joy after hearing the message from the angel. We just featured an interview with the Bible scholar N.T. Wright who made a very similar point about Mary’s hymn of joy. Wright says too many Christians miss the full version of that text at Christmas.

JIM: There are so many examples of people missing the joy that’s right there in our tradition. I went to a parish in New Jersey that had a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, this very sweet-natured young nun. But, when I looked closely at the statue, there stood this 10-foot-tall image of her outside the church glowering down at me.

DAVID: Our home office is in Michigan where there’s a major shrine to St. Therese, so I know her story very well. She was the Little Flower and she loved life. I think of her life as tragic, because she died so young of illness, but she squeezed a lot of joy out of her short life.

JIM: Yes, of course! She was charming and lighthearted and humorous. How can you read about her life and not see the joy? Yet, so many artists depict her as gloomy.  This is a problem with so many figures. St. Philip Neri was known for his wit. He used to go around Rome with half of his beard shaved off to encourage people to poke fun at him. And, I just got a letter from a priest in India who read my book and who used to work with Mother Teresa. When they were working on the constitution of her religious order, she talked about the candidates needing a sense of humor. He asked her: “Why?” And she said: “If they don’t have humor, they won’t be able to persevere. Our work is far too difficult. They need joy to last.”

LAUGHING IN CHURCH: A DANGEROUS IDEA

DAVID: You include Cal Samra in your book, the guy who has produced, for many years, a newsletter about church humor. I’ve reported on Cal Samra’s work a number of times over the years. He promotes an all-humor-themed Sunday for the weekend right after Easter, each year. He calls it Holy Humor Sunday. In churches that have tried this, they really enjoy the response from churchgoers. But it sounds like a dangerous idea to many readers.

JIM: Part of the problem is that humor and even the idea of laughing in church is frowned upon in so many places. I even titled one chapter in the book “Laughing in Church” so people would notice this point. As Christians, we are people who proclaim Good News and joy, but this idea of laughing seems anathema to so many people. Catholics say that we “celebrate” the Mass. It’s supposed to be a celebration. Of course, the Mass is not a laugh riot, but some parts of the Mass should be joyful.

I was talking with one man who complained that, if we get too joyful, then: “How am I supposed to be contemplative?” When he asked me that question, I thought: Wow. Is that an interesting assumption about contemplation!?! Then, I asked him: “So, how do you contemplate something like the ocean or a beautiful sunrise? Do you do it with a big frown on your face?”

DAVID: Well, I suspect people who are so serious-minded will find themselves tested, now that you have written this book. I can envision lots of clergy buying this book and immediately swiping all the good stories to use in their own preaching.

JIM: Point that out! I totally support your desire to get people to buy this book and, if the way to do it is to remind preachers that they can use these stories, then do it. But we should say: Each chapter is chock full of material not only for preachers, but also for your own individual spiritual life as a reader.

DAVID: It’s obvious in this interview that you do focus quite a bit on your own Catholic church. But, this book is far broader than any one denomination. These basic ideas, really, apply to all kinds of spiritual journeys. As a Protestant myself, I’ve got to say: We do quite a heavy-duty number on the Bible ourselves.

JIM: Oh yes! Go into a Protestant church and find the images of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or at the Last Supper. Look at the main images of Jesus inside a Protestant church and you’ll find he’s looking pretty dour. I find this ironic because a number of the great Protestant leaders, like Martin Luther, used humor all the time. Luther thought of himself as quite a wit! I’ve talked about this with Martin Marty and he says this is not just a Catholic problem. This runs across Christianity.

HUMOR ISN’T OPTIONAL, ESPECIALLY IF YOU HOPE FOR HEAVEN

DAVID: You make an important point both in the opening and the closing of your book. Joy isn’t optional in a spiritually healthy life. In our own ReadTheSpirit Books, we just published a book called Guide for Caregivers that makes this point from a very practical standpoint: Humor leads to spiritual health. But, even more than that, you point out that Heaven—this great hope for millions of us—is a place of supreme joy. If we’ve lived our lives joylessly, then we’re not well equipped for heaven.

I love it that, in the final reference to this central issue, you quote Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. You point out that the rabbi says: “Laughter and humor are ways to prepare oneself for the ecstasy in the world to come. In fact the Talmud says that in the world to come we will dance a hora with God in the middle!”

JIM: If part of our life on earth is a preparation for heaven, and if heaven is a joyful place, then part of our life on earth should include joy. But more to the point, joy shows your true faith in God. If your life is oriented toward a place where you’ll be in union with God, then why shouldn’t you be happy? And for the Christian, Christ is risen! I can’t think of any more joyful reason for living than that. The fundamental orientation of the Christian should be joy.

That is not to say you must be happy every day. You’d be a robot if you weren’t sad at times of loss or natural disaster, and so on. When Jesus is crucified, the disciples mourn. But, we have to assume that the disciples are very happy on the first Easter Sunday. They run to the tomb; they don’t mope around. And, remember, the final events in Jesus’ life represent one week, compared with several years of his ministry. What was he doing the rest of the time? His life was full of table fellowship, dining with visitors, hanging out with his friends, preaching the good news, telling playful parables, healing people and going to wedding parties. His first miracle was to make more wine for people at a party!

DAVID: Close this out with some humor, Jim.

JIM: OK. So, Jesus comes down for the Second Coming and he calls the Pope. Jesus says, “I’m back!”
The Pope says, “This is fantastic!”
Jesus says: “Yes, I’ve decided it’s time for me to come back to the seat of the One True Faith, but I have good news and bad news.”
The Pope says, “What’s the good news?”
Jesus says, “All sins are forgiven and and everyone is welcome into heaven.”
The Pope says, “Fantastic! Fantastic! But what’s the bad news?”
Jesus says, “I’m calling from Salt Lake City.”

REMEMBER, it’s a great Chrismas gift: Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life is available from Amazon right now.

Want see FATHER MARTIN on COLBERT REPORT? This link takes you to the Colbert Nation website where a 6-minute clip of the interview about Jim’s book will play, after a short commercial message.

More on spiritual gifts of humor?

ReadTheSpirit publishes Guide for Caregivers, a new jump-start, start-anywhere guidebook by author and pastoral counselor Dr. Benjamin Pratt. You’ll find that humor, laughter and the joy of good friends and music are key goals Pratt addresses for caregivers, including some practical ways to rediscover your joy even in the midst of a hectic, stress-filled schedule.

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

Joy to the World in Father Martin’s funny book on saints

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1205_cover_Between_Heaven_and_Mirth_joy_with_saints_James_Martin.jpgIn one sentence we can review—and convince lots of readers to purchase—Father James Martin SJ’s new book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.
Here’s the one sentence: In this book, you’ll find lots of Father Martin’s best jokes and humorous stories that will leave you, your friends and your congregation laughing all the way to joy and inspiration.
(Or, in just 6 words: Buy the book; share the laughs.)

Father James Martin SJ, the Jesuit author and journalist, is widely known nationwide for his America magazine articles, his popular books and his appearances on network TV, providing analysis about the Catholic church or other matters of faith. We also highly recommend his earlier book, My Life with the Saints, which you can order from Amazon by clicking on the title.

Later this week, don’t miss our interview with Father Martin. But, today, in introducing his newest book, we will share our first Question and Answer.
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I asked: “Of all the many subjects you write about, concerning Christianity and our culture, why did you think a book on using humor in the church was the most important thing to publish right now?”

Father Martin answers: “I traveled a lot around the country, talking to groups about my earlier book, My Life with the Saints. I discovered that what people most wanted to hear were stories about the ways saints led joyful lives. They also were very interested in saints’ senses of humor and jokes they made—how the saints praised laugher. I realized that we are all facing two big problems. First, most Christian groups are rather in the dark about this aspect of the lives of saints. But, second and much more of problem: The idea of being joyful in church is a foreign idea to most Christians! It was almost as though I needed to give them permission to enjoy a good joke with the saints, to show their sense of humor and to laugh out loud in church. If you doubt that this is a problem, just take a look at the artwork in most churches. There are far too many sad and tortured-looking saints. Some of these saints had such a sweet nature and enjoyed a good laugh at the humor of life, yet we have captured them forever in images that glower at us.”
(Later this week, you can read the entire interview with Father Martin.)

WHY YOU SHOULD READ ‘BETWEEN HEAVEN AND MIRTH’

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1205_Father_James_Martin_SJ.jpgAUTHOR AND JOURNALIST FATHER JAMES MARTIN SJ. Photo courtesy of Martin and his publisher.First, there’s a whole lot more than jokes and other humorous stories between these covers. Among many other very smart pieces of advice Martin gives us in this book is: How you can grow your church by using more humor. These days, church growth is the holy grail for most clergy. Plus, Martin also provides a wonderful overview of the history of humor in our faith and he covers the theological importance of publicly expressing our joy.

Second, while Martin obviously is Catholic and is most popular in Catholic circles, this is an ecumenical book—and will even be popular with readers from other faiths. For example, one of Martin’s clergy friends is the Reform Rabbi Daniel Polish, who he includes in one chapter.

BALAAM AND HIS ASS: Rabbi Polish describes for Martin the earthy humor in the story of Balaam and his talking ass in the book of Numbers Chapter 22. In Martin’s words: “Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet with a gift for divination, encounters an angel of the Lord, but fails to recognize him. Instead his donkey, who is miraculously given the power to speak, recognizes the angel. The talking donkey also takes the opportunity to rebuke Balaam for his mistreatment: ‘What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?’ Rabbi Polish believes the implicit question in the story is, to make the point in vernacular English, ‘Who’s the jackass here?’”

SOME RELIGIOUS LEADERS ACTUALLY ARE FUNNY, IF WE GIVE THEM A CHANCE: In the book, you’ll read about many real-life men and women in religious leadership who could be quite amusing, given a chance. Martin argues that we deliberately mute the humor. He asks: When was the last time a new bishop was introduced to the news media with the words, “and he has a great sense of humor”? Almost never, Martin says. In fact, many religious leaders have, indeed, enjoyed life’s humor.

New York Catholic Cardinal John O’Connor always had a sly sense of humor. Martin describes a long and dull fund-raising banquet that O’Connor had to endure—including an endless reading of donors’ names by a master of ceremonies who was ill prepared and continually had to check a series of little note cards to recall the names of noted people. Finally, the emcee told the crowd: “And now, Cardinal O’Connor will come to the dais and give us his benediction.”

The cardinal walked up to the podium and said, “Almighty Gody, we thank you for all the blessings you have bestowed on us. And we do this in the name of your Son, ummm … (and the cardinal pulled out his own little note card and glanced down) … Jesus Christ.”

THERE’S HUMOR IN EVERY RELIGIOUS TRADITION

Here’s one last example of the humor you’ll find in this book: This one was given to Martin by a friend who is a Lutheran pastor. This story shows how, whatever your individual religious tradition, there probably are foibles you can—and should—turn to laughter.

A Lutheran pastor is asleep one night when the phone rings. The fire department is calling to say that someone is about to jump off a roof. The pastor throws on his clothes, jumps into his car, and races to the house. When he arrives, a firefighter points to the man on his roof.
“Don’t jump!” yells the pastor.
“Well, I’m going to!” says the man. “I’ve got nothing to live for.”
The pastor asks, “What about your family?”
And the man says, “I’ve got none!”
The pastor asks, “What about your friends?”
The man says, “I’ve got none!”
The pastor pauses for a long while and then says, “Well, I’m sure we could be friends. I’ll bet we have a lot in common.”
“I doubt it,” says the man on the roof.
The pastor thinks. “Well, do you believe in God?” he asks.
“Yes,” says the man.
“See?” says the pastor. “We have that in common! Are you a Christian?”
“Yes,” says the man.
“So am I!” says the pastor, delighted.
“Are you a Lutheran by any chance?”
“Yes I am,” the man says.
“I’m a Lutheran pastor!” says the pastor. “We have so much in common!” Then he pauses and asks. “Which branch? Missouri Synod or Evangelical Lutheran?”
“Evangelical Lutheran,” says the man.
Then the pastor says, “In that case: Jump, you heretic!”

Come back later this week for our full interview with Father James Martin SJ

More on spiritual gifts of humor?

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1205_Guide_for_Caregivers_small_cover.jpgReadTheSpirit publishes Guide for Caregivers, a new jump-start, start-anywhere guidebook by author and pastoral counselor Dr. Benjamin Pratt. You’ll find that humor, laughter and the joy of good friends and music are key goals Pratt addresses for caregivers, including some practical ways to rediscover your joy even in the midst of a hectic, stress-filled schedule.

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