Great reading for the Lenten season

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CLICK THIS GRAPHIC to visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

2 billion Christians around the world are in the midst of Lent, the season of prayerful reflection that leads to Easter. Whether you are a part of the Eastern Orthodox Great Lent, or the Western Lenten season, you’ve got more than a month—until Easter Sunday on April 20—to ponder your spiritual direction.

ReadTheSpirit highly recommends dozens of books, each year, from a wide range of authors and publishing houses. Today, though, we are asking our readers to help support ReadTheSpirit Books—our own circle of authors. Here are six great choices for Lenten reading …

OUR LENT

ReadTheSpirit’s founding editor David Crumm wrote this popular 40-day Lenten devotional several years ago—and we have heard from individuals, from small groups and from entire congregations who have enjoyed this book. It’s now in an updated Second Edition, available in our bookstore (where we provide easy links to buy our books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online retailers). In each of the 40 chapters, David takes a portion of the Gospel stories about Jesus’s final days—then,  he chooses an object in that day’s Bible passage that connects Jesus’s life with our contemporary world. In the course of these 40 days, you’ll meet everyone from John Lennon and poet Joesph Brodsky to the Cat in the Hat and the Lord of the Rings.

FLAVORS OF FAITH

Sharing food is a cornerstone of virtually every faith on the planet. That’s why ReadTheSpirit online magazine includes our Feed The Spirit department with weekly stories and recipes. Our first major book on the connections between faith and food is Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. Chapters include the importance of food in strengthening American communities, plus a recipe from a beloved American poet, and the story of pretzels as both a symbol of prayer and an annual reminder of Lent—and so much more.

BLESSED … PEACEMAKERS

Our Interfaith Peacemakers department is a great place to sample chapters from Daniel Buttry’s popular books, especially his latest: Blessed Are the Peacemakers. In these pages, you will meet more than 100 heroes, but most of them are not the kind of heroes our culture celebrates for muscle, beauty and wealth. These are peacemakers—and the world needs to hear their stories now more than ever.

GUIDE FOR CAREGIVERS

Today, you’ll find a fresh sample of the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt’s writing in our We Are Caregivers department. Ben also appears in the website of the Day1 radio network. His practical, compassionate wisdom has attracted readers nationwide. This Lenten season, remember that 1 in 3 American households includes a caregiver. Buy this book for yourself or for a caregiver you care about. Here is Ben’s ReadTheSpirit bookstore page.

GOD SIGNS

Every week, author and journalist Suzy Farbman writes stories about the signs of God’s goodness that often surprise us—and may come into our lives in many forms. There’s not a better theme for the Lenten season! In her book, God Signs: Health, Hope and Miracles, My Journey to Recovery, Suzy invites readers along on a heart-opening journey through the many God Signs she encountered while struggling with one of life’s greatest challenges.

BIRD ON FIRE

Jane Wells writes on many themes. She is the host of our colorful Faith Goes Pop department, which explores connections between faith and popular culture—and Jane also has developed the Bird on Fire department, which inspires individuals and congregations to get involved in combating modern slavery, hunger and homelessness. In working with young people, Jane became aware that the enormous fascination with science fiction books and movies, especially The Hunger Games, reveals a deep concern for many of the world’s most vulnerable men, women and children. Jane’s slogans include: “Hunger isn’t science fiction.” If you know a young person—or you are a Hunger Games fan yourself—there’s not a better Lenten book than Bird on Fire: A Bible Study for Understanding the Hunger Games.

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

 

The Love and Salt interview: Why letter writing still builds friendship and unlocks our spiritual vision

Click the cover to visit it's Amazon page.

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

Christianity was founded on letters. St. Paul’s letters carried the faith into the world years before the four Gospels were published. Much later, America was founded on letters, which is why John Adams is associated with the current National Card and Letter-Writing Month. In the civil rights struggle, a letter from a Birmingham jail 50 years ago ignited a national movement for justice. (Read more about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter in a second story, today.)

Recently, two American women—one who lives in Illinois and one in Virginia—published a collection of their letters, spanning three years and some tumultuous changes in their lives. Their project is a unique window into the spiritual lives of American women—wives, mothers and professionals in their 30s. While American women are the greatest consumers of spiritually themed media—books, magazines and websites—they usually find publishers offering them a heavy diet of older male voices. Instead, Amy Andrews and Jessica Mesman Griffith wrote their own inspirational Christian classic from scratch.

At ReadTheSpirit, we are not alone in praising Love & Salt. Gregory Wolfe, founder of Image magazine and a leading talent in American spiritual letters, described the book this way: “There are a lot of good books about the spiritual life out there, but one of their drawbacks is that they tend to organize experience into categories and abstractions and steps. … What if a book about God was something more like a conversation between two thoughtful people recording the messy vicissitudes of everyday life, including marriage and children, circling around important topics without schematizing them, sharing what they observe and read and care about? That’s precisely what we get in Love and Salt.

TODAY, rather than tell you more about Love and Salt, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Amy and Jessica. Much as they do in their letters, they are able to share personal insights into what makes their three-year journey both unique—and universal.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW ON ‘LOVE & SALT’
WITH AMY ANDREWS & JESSICA MESMAN GRIFFITH

DAVID: Fans of TV series and movies about women will be surprised to learn that your letters rarely mention shopping; your letters contain a lot about relationships, but not about sex; and your letters spend a lot of time focused on something that is rarely mentioned in Hollywood—your spiritual lives. What’s remarkable is that you two chose that theme and stuck to it for three years.

Amy Andrews, photo courtesy of the publisher.

Amy Andrews, photo courtesy of the publisher.

AMY: The basic premise was that we were going to write letters, telling each other stories about the state of our souls—stories about how we came to that place in our lives, each day.

JESSICA: We certainly didn’t set out to write a book! Honestly, I’m shocked by this book every time I re-read it. We were just two people who started this conversation through letters. The providential nature of what we tried to do is shown in how important our friendship would become. We were serious about writing letters as we started out, but we had no idea what our friendship ultimately would mean to us—or how much our growing faith would mean to us.

We were surprised that that, all of a sudden, what we were doing in writing and mailing these letters became a really important part of our lives. Eventually, these letters became something we had to do to survive. You can see in our early letters that we were wondering about our faith, pondering some theological ideas—then, as time passed, we began living out our faith. I’m still blown away by how this story unfolded. I lived through it. I wrote half the letters. But it’s as though the book wrote itself through all we experienced together.

DAVID: We won’t include spoilers to this interview, but I can say that your phrase—“all we experienced together”—includes intense heartbreak at one point in the overall story.

Before we talk further about what happened, I’m sure lots of readers are going to want to follow your example. So, let’s explain how you did this: You two met in a writing workshop and you both were interested in the Catholic Church. Jessica already was Catholic; Amy was going through the process to officially become a Catholic. Jessica, you agreed to be Amy’s sponsor as she formally joined the church. As part of your dual journeys both into writing and into the church, you decided to write these letters back and forth starting in Lent 2005.

What were the first steps? Did you go out and purchase stationery? Were you interested in fountain pens? Old-fashioned typewriters?

LOVE AND SALT:
‘THE CONVERSATION WAS THE PRIMARY THING’

AMY: We never used email. These letters were either typed or handwritten and the majority of them were handwritten.

DAVID: Typed? I’ve been a journalist long enough that I actually started out using a typewriter like the drawing on the cover of your book.

AMY: No. We typed them on the computer, then printed them out before mailing them. But, we didn’t even want these letters to stay resident on our computers. Often, I got rid of the computer copies after they were printed. We wanted these to be physical letters, and we still have big boxes of them.

I was never enamored of beautiful stationery or special pens or anything like that. This was a big commitment to write so regularly to each other, so we needed to approach this like a workhorse. The conversation was the primary thing. I would grab whatever I could to write my next letter. I sent a few cards here and there but I often wrote on legal pads. Once, Jess wrote to me in crayon on some used construction paper, because she was sitting in her car and that’s all she could find.

JESSICA: I usually wrote on legal pads, too, because I had a stack of them in my office. When I started with this, I was a development officer at Notre Dame. I served as a ghost writer for the president in thanking various people who supported Notre Dame, and I wrote those letters first on legal pads.

So, it was natural for me to write to Amy that same way. Just reach for the legal pad. We agreed that this wasn’t a precious project. We didn’t choose special paper or fountain pens. We were so focused on the letters themselves that sometimes, yes, I did write on trash I had at hand.

At one point, my daughter was very young and had trouble getting to sleep, so like a lot of parents we would use the trick of driving her around until she would fall asleep. This was particularly true at naptime. One time I did that and was just sitting in the car, letting her sleep, and I found this old piece of construction paper. I didn’t have a legal pad handy, so that’s what I used for the next letter. And, no, even though there is an old-fashioned typewriter on the cover of the book, neither of us used one.

LOVE AND SALT:
INFLUENCE OF C.S. LEWIS AND THE INKLINGS

DAVID: Any of our readers who love Christian classics, including C.S. Lewis and the Inklings, will find kindred spirits in the two of you. Your book is a treasure trove of recommendations that you make to each other about terrific literary voices—mostly Christian writers. People will close your book with a wonderful reading list in hand from the books you two share. Here’s my question: Were you surprised to find the Inklings such an inspiration? I can’t imagine a more crusty bunch of older male academics. The Inklings were an honest to goodness “old boys club.” Yet, you two love these writers.

AMY: I grew up in an agnostic/atheist family, although my whole family now is Christian of some variety. One of the very important influences in my family was when my father started reading C.S. Lewis. I was then a senior in high school and he was reading Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Then I became philosophically interested in C.S. Lewis, too. In college, I read tons of C.S. Lewis. I was interested in him as a thinker, then became enamored of all the Inklings. There was something so beautiful in these people coming together to talk about these ideas. These were Oxford dons who also wrote novels and children’s books for real people—not for other Oxford dons. They weren’t focused on small scholarship—they were focused on big ideas. I’ve referred to our exchange of letters as our own Oxford pub.

Jessica Mesman Griffith courtesy of the publisher.

Jessica Mesman Griffith courtesy of the publisher.

JESSICA: Yes, the Inklings are huge for us. They’re like role models. We want to be in that Oxford pub, talking about God and life and death and heaven and miracles. We crave that kind of serious intellectual engagement with faith that we see in the Inklings—and we also see their deep friendships. That was very appealing to us.

DAVID: I’m curious Amy, because you teach math now at Northwestern University, whether Lewis’s very logical style appealed to you. He has been both praised and criticized for the logic he tries to lay out in his Christian apologetics.

AMY: Interesting you would ask that. When I was in college, that’s exactly what I wanted: logic. I started out as an English major and then I began to study science and math and I wanted things to be rational. So, I would say, I used to love Lewis. But now I’m much more of a Tolkien fan. One of my favorite Tolkien pieces is his essay, On Fairy Stories. He essentially says: Ultimately what is true about life comes to us in story form.

DAVID: Yes, it’s a popular piece. As he reaches the end of that essay, he argues that the Christian message is such a vast, cosmic truth that the finite human mind is incapable of grasping the entire truth. So, we receive it in the form of stories. However, Tolkien says: “This story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.”

JESSICA: The Inklings were a mystical bunch. I enjoy the novels of Charles Williams and, among the Inklings, Williams was really out there. Just the other day, I was re-reading a portion of his Descent into Hell. Now, I’m not saying that I totally agree with everything Williams wrote, but he has a lot of interesting ideas. One of the ideas he writes about, and we see in the other Inklings as well, is this idea of bearing each other’s burdens. They were exploring a much deeper idea here of spiritually committing to help bear each other’s burdens. This idea appeals to me, because Amy and I don’t live in the same part of the country. So, how is it possible that we can try to bear each other’s spiritual and emotional burdens?

LOVE AND SALT:
CHOOSING TO FOLLOW IN THE STEPS OF RUTH AND NAOMI

DAVID: You also draw a lot from the Bible, including the central theme that runs through the entire book: “Where you go—I will go.” That’s the timeless line that comes to us from the first chapter of the book of Ruth. I mention this because, among the millions of small groups that meet coast to coast, many of them are “Bible studies” and the participants like to touch on biblical themes. Readers certainly will find that in many forms throughout this book. I could envision a really wonderful small-group series in which people would agree to read sections of your book, each week, and then prepare to begin writing letters as they complete the series. So, let’s talk for just a moment about Ruth and Naomi. You stumbled upon this passage of the Bible at the very beginning of your friendship and it has become an important touchstone throughout your friendship.

AMY: I’m very slow to say that anything is providential. But, it’s hard not to view our discovery of Ruth and Naomi at the beginning of our friendship as anything other than providence. We were walking around New York and talking. We wanted to find something to read together, so we stepped into a bookstore and we wound up with this story.

JESSICA: It was a gift. I don’t talk that way very often, but this was a gift—in some strange way we happened upon that story in that store full of books. We were walking around Manhattan and just enjoying talking with each other. We were not setting out to read the Bible together. But we were in this bookstore in Greenwich Village and she just happened to reach onto a shelf where there was a Bible. And, we just happened to end up with Ruth and Naomi.

It was only later that we even realized that reading scripture aloud is a traditional form of praying. We were just captivated by the story of Ruth and Naomi. We liked the idea of making a vow to each other as friends. The idea of one woman committing to a friendship with another woman is a very powerful idea. Then, as we went through this friendship—and encountered tragedy together—we would remember that day in the bookstore and it gave us a noble way of thinking about our friendship.

LOVE AND SALT:
‘WHERE THE REAL STORY BEGINS’

DAVID: I have to urge readers who have enjoyed this interview—and who click over to Amazon and buy a copy—to commit to reading the first third of the book. It starts slow. Your first letters are good reading, but those opening pages aren’t what would inspire someone to call a friend and start a discussion group about this book. It’s when you reach the middle of this book that you really see the larger power of this whole story. And, no spoilers here, but I have to say:

One of the big influences on my life is my late grandmother, Mabel Yunker, a towering figure of a churchwoman in northern Indiana. She had a saying that it took me well into my 50s to understand: “Pray when you don’t need it—so when you need it, you don’t have to pray.” I’d say that’s a central truth in your book.

AMY: I’ll be interested to see what Jessica has to say about this, because she lost her mother when she was 13 and grief has been a reality for her throughout her life. But for me, grief wasn’t so real. I had an awareness of mortality, but it was theoretical for me. As we started this friendship and these letters, it was a beautiful experience for us—but it was beautiful in a poetic, abstract way. We only realized later that we were doing all of this long before we understood the depth and the power of this practice. We didn’t know how much we would need this.

JESSICA: Yes, I appreciate your saying that to readers, David, because you have to follow this story and trust that the real story will begin for you, as a reader, where it truly began for us. Think of the opening portion of the book as our training for what would come later.

DAVID: And that’s a perfect set up, Jessica, for the final question: So, what comes later for you two in 2013 and beyond?

AMY: Well, I’m 42 and, yes, we have been writing letters ever since. But there are gaps in our letters now. Having small children around the house makes it harder to produce every day. Then, there was a nine-month period where we wound up living in the same place and it didn’t make as much sense to write letters. Will there be another volume of letters? Who knows. We had no intention of creating a book in the first place. So, I could say with fear and trembling: Yes, there might be another book of letters.

JESSICA: I’m 36 and I am a writer, and this is a weird position for me as a writer to be known for my letters. We wrote these letters without any intention of turning them into a book. That came later. But, as a writer, I don’t want us to become known as just “The Letter Writing Ladies.” I’m more interested in sharing our story and letting other people take inspiration and perhaps start writing themselves. We would love it if other people were moved to take up their pens, too.

Click on the book cover above to order a copy of Love & Salt.

(Read more about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter in a second story, today.)

(This interview was originally published in readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural issues.)

Lenten Journey: Past Easter, Jesus waits … with breakfast

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

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRACIAS SENOR!

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

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

Lenten Journey 7: Sacred doors into Fridays, Saturdays & Sundays

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

“YOU ARE HERE!”

Maps, paths and doorways collage.

Maps, paths and doorways from photos in Wikimedia Commons and from Benjamin Pratt.

We’ve all read the signs. They remind us of our current pinpoint on Earth—and, if we prayerfully reflect, we realize that these are sacred truths:
We are here.
We are among the living.
We stand on a tiny spot of God’s Creation—ready to take a step.

For Christians around the world this week, that next step carries us into the three most important days of the year. So, let’s pause in our Lenten Journey. Remember where we started? I wrote these words: “Holidays are history. That’s the way most of us approach the ancient traditions and family customs that we love to repeat each year. But, the yearlong cycle of Christian holidays are much more than that. These seasons are timeless, yet they also are very clear invitations to affirm our personal journey as God’s people.”

Remember how far we have come? You may want to review the earlier parts in this series.

Now, in Holy Week, everything we have summoned in this Lenten Journey rises and converges in a kaleidoscope of life and death, hope and tragedy, community and isolation. In these final days before Easter, we pass through enormous sorrow and abandonment as we move toward the spectacular joy we proclaim as Christians. On Good Friday, Jesus was tacked to a tree—his spirit broken. Holy Saturday is a long period of waiting when, some Christian traditions say, Jesus descended into Hell. Easter brings—resurrection.

We might think of Friday as the day of “NO!” As we experience Good Fridays, life throws us against a rock, tacks us to a tree, devastates our innocence and dreams for our marriage, our country, our children, our lives. That “NO!” breaks our spirit and almost destroys our faith in the goodness of God. On such Fridays, the pain is excruciating, and it is appropriate to be angry, enraged and in deep grief.

Saturday is “I DON’T KNOW.” We move—as Jesus’s followers did 2,000 years ago—into a soft cynicism or despair. We can’t stay in Friday’s intense pain, but we haven’t reached Easter’s joy. Saturday is the janitorial day. We can’t mourn; we can’t celebrate. So, we get up and start moving through our many tasks. Grief and anger from Friday evolves into a flat, soft, lazy, cynical bitterness, a spiritual deadness. This is life without any spice, vitality or vigor. This is spiritual accidie—a term I describe in my books on Ian Fleming and on coping with the challenges of caregiving.

And, Sunday? “YES!” We yearn for Easter, when we are reborn with new directions, new possibilities. It is the day of a clean and restored heart. We are able to sing praises and live with purpose, compassion and gratitude. The Psalmist writes: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit, not a cynical spirit, not a bitter spirit. You will not reject a humble and repentant heart, O God.” (Psalm 51)

LINKS IN THIS TRIDUUM

Perhaps you can see, already, that this Lenten journey really is a cycle through which we live, over and over again, throughout our lives. The Catholic Church calls this the Easter Triduum—three inextricably linked days packed in Catholic tradition with more sacred firepower than Christmas. Bishops around the world bless all the holy oils that priests will use for 365 days until the next Triduum. The church’s mighty leaders wash the feet of the powerless, including at the central altar in the Vatican. Good Friday becomes the only day of the year without a Mass. And the liturgies for Easter? The Eastern Orthodox prayers go on for hours and hours—and hours.

In some Easter vigils, outdoor fires are lit and carried in processions. Such powerful images in these three days! My own prayers in recent years begin with images. I crave the clarity of images that reflect awe, gratitude, hospitality, compassion, fear, anxiety and hope—a vast array of feelings. These images may turn into words, some of which I record, but often I stay in the meditative clarity of the images. I often carry a camera and sometimes, I simply capture an image whole and wordless. I have given you lots of words, so let me turn to images for this most important of all periods in our journey.

PAUSE A MOMENT AT THESE THREE DOORWAYS

You may want to set aside a few minutes to read these next three paragraphs. You may want to gather up a notebook or journal to record your reflections.

A FRIDAY IMAGE: Remember the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre? Some images are burned into our collective memories: that single-file row of fleeing students and, later, the tears in President Obama’s eyes as he spoke to the nation. But, now, turn your mind’s eye toward another detail—one we all missed. As the tragedy unfolded, parents were told to report to a local fire station to pick up their children. Officials tried to bring all of the surviving students to that fire station to send them home in an orderly way. Envision a doorway—the doorway to that fire station. You are among the parents coming to take your children home. Then, you realize that all of the surviving children have been hugged and taken home. People are staring at each other, now. Weeping. Some parents are left standing. Some can no longer stand. The truth is: No more children will go home. A shocking image, isn’t it? Yet, that is what happened on Friday, December 14, 2012.

A SATURDAY IMAGE: On Saturday, January 8, 2011, U.S. Rep. Gabriel “Gabby” Giffords was shot numerous times in a Tucson shopping center. Initial news reports declared her dead, but an intern in her office, Daniel Hernandez, Jr., ministered so effectively to the severely wounded congresswoman that she was alive when she reached the hospital. During and after surgery, she was placed in a medically induced coma. She did not open her eyes for days. Imagine the doorway of her hospital room on that Saturday night: a white-wrapped body all but lifeless. It was a Saturday in which the whole nation could say only: “I don’t know.”

A SUNDAY IMAGE: Gabby Giffords has had many spectacular Easter moments over the past two years. Sunday June 22, 2011, we all saw her again—for the first time since the shooting—in two photographs she and her family released to newspapers and TV news that day. But think of another Sunday, July 31, 2011, when we all heard the news that Giffords would return to Congress the next morning! Hearts stirred in Washington and nationwide as each of us heard this news and prepared for what would unfold on that morning of Monday August 1. Focus your mind’s eye on the doorway into the U.S. House of Representatives as Giffords approached that portal. Inside, hundreds were poised to leap to their feet and applaud. In that moment at the doorway, envision the radiance of joy and purpose on her beautiful face—the resurrected image of a woman who will always live with the marks of her Friday but who lives with courage, purpose and faith in the future.

Wondering where you are this Lenten season? These three days take hold of us from that despair we all feel when we are utterly lost and scream: “No!” We have no choice but to move through those first stumbling Saturday steps—without much hope at all—admitting: “I don’t know.” And then, our faith says, we reach the “Yes!” of Easter. The Good News comes to us with that sign so clearly in our eyes again—pinpointing our sacred spot in God’s great Creation and allowing us to live again:

“YOU ARE HERE!”

May the One who called you unto life and who will call you unto death—the One who holds you Beloved and yearns that you know Eternal Life now, Bless you so that you may be an instrument of Peace, Love, Hope, Compassion and Forgiveness to all whom you encounter.
Amen.

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

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

Lenten Journey 6: ‘Look into it.’ And, ‘Wonder.’

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

FOR LENT 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘Our Lent’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed the day-by-day book of inspiring stories, Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & Guide for Caregivers is publishing a new Lenten series:
Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’

Part 3: Surprised? Or, is this an invitation to a blessing?

Part 4: Legacy of imperfection and grace.
Part 5: In death … is life.

6: Intimate Departures—
‘Look into it.’ And, ‘Wonder.’

“When Pilate learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, he granted the body to Joseph (of Arimathea). Then Joseph brought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”
Mark 15: 45-6

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Tree_outside_the_window_of_the_dinner_table.jpgPhotograph by David Crumm.I HELPED TO DRESS my father and mother—and place them in their caskets. It was an intimate and sacred way to express my gratitude to them for their gift of life and their care of me. It was also an aide in my grief journey with each parent.

My mother died at age 63 in 1980 from a stroke following hip surgery. My last act while she was conscious was feeding her. The funeral director was more resistant to my request to participate in the burial preparation than my brother. When we arrived to assist in the process, her body was in a private viewing parlor resting on a gurney. She was respectfully clad in undergarments and a full-length slip. Our task was to assist in dressing her in a skirt, blouse and jewelry. It was a tender and emotional time for me as I thought about how she had nurtured me into life, fed, clothed and bathed me; laughed with and cried with me. Numerous memories, painful and joyful, filtered through my mind and heart. My brother and I worked quietly, sharing brief images, and then lifted her gently into her casket.

A similar process was repeated five years later with my father. Again, one of my last memories was feeding him before he slipped away. At the funeral home it was different. The director said that he had honored many requests to assist in the preparation of a body for a funeral, especially among parents who had lost children and infants. They knew how important the intimacy of departure can be when saying goodbye.

For my father, the deed was not done in the fancy parlor. We were escorted directly to the staff’s preparation workroom. Our father, wearing only boxer shorts, was laid out on a stainless steel worktable. As we dressed him my mind flashed through a kaleidoscope of scenes from life with him. Again, my brother and I worked quietly and carefully we placed him in his casket.

What led me to risk this behavior was observing some Roman Catholic brothers prepare the body of one of their own to bury him. It felt so right, so respectful, and so sacred. I wanted to extend the same to my beloved. Dying and death are part of our lives. To extend our caregiving to our deceased by participating more intimately in their departure is a sacred gift that walks with our beloved on their journey to eternity.

Most of us have moved away from the intimacy of our grief and turned the process of care and burial over to professionals. Perhaps we need to reconsider the emotional and spiritual price we pay for that exchange. Robert Frost exposes the painful aloneness of parents who bury a child in “Home Burial.” The father who had dug his child’s grave pleads with his wife: “Let me into your grief.”

Once again, some people are initiating home funerals as a way of assisting their grief process and making the life/death experience more intimate. Conversations are beginning to take place in Death Cafés, perhaps an off-putting name but certainly an idea that has enticed many to engage in conversations about end of life issues across our nation. These venues date to 2004, when sociologist Bernard Crettaz began hosting such cafés in Switzerland. Generally coordinated by hospice workers, these cafés have been spawned from California to Maine.

Not long ago, I was deeply moved when I attended a showing of the tender, respectful Japanese film, Departures, which tells the story of a cellist who loses his job when an orchestra disbands. He retreats to his hometown and winds up taking a job as an undertaker, performing the elaborate preparations of bodies after death. At first, his family is horrified. Later—well, watch the film unfold and you will appreciate the stirring conclusion.

Many cultures around the world follow such intimate traditions to this day. In American Muslim communities, among the men and women who attend prayers at each mosque there often are a handful trained in the sacred preparation of the dead for the simplicity of Muslim burial. This places an extra reminder in the gathering of a Muslim community: Someone praying next to you, shoulder to shoulder, may be the person who one day will bathe and wrap your lifeless body.

These are wonderments—profound, ancient stirrings of our faith—that we have tried so hard to hermetically seal away. America’s most famous undertaker, poet and essayist Thomas Lynch, won the American Book Award for The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. He argues that our desire for up-beat memorial services, often with the loved one invisibly reduced to an attractive little container of ashes, rob us of one of life’s deepest spiritual truths.

In the final pages of his book, Lynch writes: “You should see it till the very end. Avoid the temptation of tidy leavetaking in a room, a cemetery chapel, at the foot of the altar. None of that. Don’t dodge it because of the weather. We’ve fished and watched football in worse conditions. It won’t take long. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder. And be cold. But stay until it’s over. Until it is done.”

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

This column also has been published at the website for the Day1 radio network.

Lenten Journey 5: In death … is life.

This entry is part 4 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

FOR LENT 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘Our Lent’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed the day-by-day book of inspiring stories, Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & Guide for Caregivers is publishing a new Lenten series:
Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’

Part 3: Surprised? Or, is this an invitation to a blessing?
Part 4: Legacy of imperfection and grace.

5: In death … is life.

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0311_Buteo_jamaicensis_Redtailed_hawk.jpg

THIS MORNING I WITNESSED IT—and I cannot keep it to myself. As often as we may see this in the natural world, the experience is riveting. Some truths we do not face easily.

Something must die for us to live.

That’s a fact. An axiom. A truth of nature: In death is life. This process unfolds all around us all the time, as simple as arising each day and eating breakfast—even our cereal was once a green and thriving plant.

So, there I stand, looking out the window, pondering the new day, enjoying a squirrel grazing beneath our feeders. Plumping himself against the winter chill; munching on grains as I had. Chickadees, Sparrows, Cardinals, Wrens peck at these kernels of life that we provide in our backyard buffet. As they crowd our feeders, they scatter an overflow on the squirrel’s head. Even a Downy Woodpcker’s sweet suet bits cascade over this fortunate grazer. Bounty showering all around him, he munches in fat contentment.

Then, a flash.

The birds explode from the feeders—gone—which is what I chiefly notice, at first. Until I realize the squirrel is gone as well. Where? I did see it unfold, I realize. The hawk shot down with talons and beak poised for the strike.

Now, I see that hawk lifting him almost softly—softly to my eyes. The squirrel utters one, short, sharp, final squeak. Soaring to a broad tree limb—50 feet above the fray. I witness a meal that will steel this regal hawk against the winter chill.

The danger past, the other birds return to the feeders one by one. Soon that colorful community is restored. But I cannot turn my eyes from the tree branch. I cannot help but watch—like catching a glimpse in my mind’s eye of myself in a coffin.

We say: In death is life. We know it. But, this is a hard truth, isn’t it? I sit down and jot this prayer, which I share with you today:

O Lord, I eat flesh and I eat grains.
All die that I may live.
This is not a prayer of guilty confession;
I pray in humble thanksgiving today.
Grant me awareness to undergird my choices:
Turn my competition and violence,
Toward stewardship and compassion,
Toward justice, kindness, mercy
And thanks for the promise of life.

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

This column also has been posted to the website of the Day1 radio network.

Lenton Journey 4: Legacy of Imperfection and Grace

This entry is part 3 of 8 in the series Lenten Journeys

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0304_COVER_Our_Lent_2nd_edition.jpgFOR LENT 2013, ReadTheSpirit has two offerings for you:

1.) DAVID CRUMM’S ‘Our Lent’ Thousands of readers have enjoyed the day-by-day book of inspiring stories, Our Lent: Things We Carry.

2.) LENTEN JOURNEY The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & Guide for Caregivers is publishing a new Lenten series:
Part 1: Introduction and ‘Deep Calls to Deep’

Part 2: ‘Rituals & Practices (and Flowing Water)’
Part 3: Surprised? Or, is this an invitation to a blessing?

4: You can sense it in the wood—
Imperfection and Grace

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:48

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Benjamin_Pratt_wood_shop_photos.jpgMY FATHER DIED IN MAY 1985. Within a month of his death I announced to my wife that I wanted to learn fine woodworking. My father had worked with his hands as an auto mechanic, but he had never worked in wood. I was puzzled. Death often confronts us with the anxious tension of despair and creativity. A month later, I met a surrogate father. Howard, an artist with wood, spent every morning in his woodshop and every afternoon reading Scientific American. He also was a jokester: The first thing he said as I entered his shop was that we needed to get a bucket of water—for my fingers when I cut them off.

Howard had served as a squadron commander in the South Pacific during WWII; he was a head of research in the U.S. Navy after the war. He built, flew—and crashed—his own plane; he survived with a broken leg. He built his house; crafted ninety classic period pieces of walnut and cherry over decades. The last years of his life he went twice a day to be with his wife whom he had lost to Alzheimer’s. Among his many life legacies were ones that blessed me—his presence as a caregiver and an artist with wood.

I still have all my fingers, and I always chuckle with gratitude as I turn on the saw. I’m more cautious around power tools than computers. They both scare me. When I enter my small shop I always think of my friend—I miss the ornery ol’ curmudgeon. I see and feel his skill, his talent, his life in my own hands as I choose planks of wood to “glue up” for the sides, bottom or lid of a chest. The perfume of each plank is unique to my nose: walnut is sweet; cedar is spicy. I caress the planks and align the grains of the wood, seeking to put their best face forward. It is a slow, intimate fondling of the wood, arranging and realigning, to achieve the best possible assembly. Then Howard’s words remind me, “You are not building a watch.”

I can’t make it perfect, but I still measure twice and cut once. Ah, the joinery—dovetails, foxtails, mortise and tenon—numerous hours of patience with routers and chisels—fitting and refitting. My grandchildren ask, “How many hours did it take you to build this, PopPop?”

“Oh, it only took all the hours necessary to make it beautiful enough for you.”

When is it ever finished? When it is good enough! There are always blemishes, slight seam gaps, chips and imperfections that remain—much like the imperfections of this woodworker. And yet, these boxes are not only storage. They are warm, solid, visually inviting gifts of hope, crafted with patience from flawed wood by a flawed man.

When finished, they call out for a hand to skim across the smooth surface that was once rough-cut lumber. Perhaps, one day, in a pensive mood, my grandchildren will let their hands glide slowly across the surface and, for a moment, their hands and hearts will pick up the flawed spirits that came before and shaped their lives.

Now, like my mentor in wood, I have become a caregiver as well. I have cared for my wife, sometimes more or less intensively, over the past nine years. I now understand more about my caregiver’s lessons—how he held the anxious, daily tension between despair and creativity. Almost every day in my life, creativity wins the struggle. Usually, my projects involve a promise of legacy for our grandchildren.

When my two older granddaughters turned ‘sweet sixteen’, I gave them each hand-crafted jewelry chests. When they graduated from high school I presented them with walnut and cedar hope chests, their monograms inlaid. My hands are not as steady now, my eyes not as discerning, so I have already begun crafting gifts for the younger grandchildren who will graduate five and seven years hence.

I am facing my mortality. But, God willing, I shall pass on gifts to them, as well.

And here is the greatest lesson I have learned: These gifts cannot be perfect. They are gifts of love, patience, persistence, devotion, practical beauty and intimate creativity. Fine woodworking always has imperfections if we look closely enough. And such is life.

Perfect is beyond my imagination, at least in this life. So, I practice a spirituality of imperfection, working to be as creative as possible under a blanket of loving grace.

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

This column also has been posted via the website for the Day1 radio network.