Awakening Soul: A prayerful gathering amid music and nature

ARDEN, N.C.—Peacemaker and singer-songwriter Fran McKendree, Lauren Winner (author of the popular Girl Meets God) and Jerry Wright (Jungian analyst and Presbyterian minister) are the headline speakers at a national gathering in November called, Awakening Soul: Modern Mind—Ancient Soul.

In addition to his national touring and activism, Fran McKendree is an occasional contributing writer and musician to Read The Spirit. Among his past contributions: He shared a music video, Times Like  These; and he shared a terrific retreat project that challenges participants to paint on kites. Fran also participated in our Read The Spirit national gathering in Kentucky in April.

If you are interested in Awakening Soul—either to share the inspiration from wherever you are sitting today or to consider attending in November—here is the information you’ll need.


Visit the Event page for this year’s Awakening Soul: Modern Mind—Ancient Soul. Here are short bios of the speakers, musicians and artists leading the four-day gathering this year. Scroll down past the bios and you’ll find the location, schedule and prices. Also, take a look at the Awakening Soul Gallery, which houses lots of intriguing material from the group’s 2011 national gathering.


Beyond the event, there is the message.

The best introduction to the spirit that motivates Awakening Soul is by Fran McKendree himself in a new column he has written describing the original spark, the first national gathering and his hopes for the 2013 event.

Even if you are not likely to attend the gathering—you may want to follow Fran McKendree’s stories, photos and music as he crisscrosses America. This singer-songwriter regularly leads major events in various parts of the U.S. He’s a popular choice to lead youth retreats and events for clergy renewal. Fran McKendree has a personal website packed with inspiring material.

We also have posted a 7-minute musical prayer—a video sent to us by Fran from an earlier Awakening Soul gathering. We are featuring that video, in its entirety, in our new Faith Goes Pop department.

Want to hear more of the nuts-and-bolts reasons for considering this event? Here is a 3-minute video in which Lauren Winner and Jerry Wright talk about what moves them to participate in Awakening Soul.


ReadTheSpirit Shaker Village Gathering: A new collaborative future (check out these dozen voices and fresh ideas)

FIFTY authors, activists and online pioneers met for four days in historic Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, building new collaborative relationships to meet our rapidly changing spiritual and cultural challenges. Today, we share a dozen voices from what we are calling The Shaker Village Gathering, a meeting of minds and hearts that already is producing a host of collaborative projects that will unfold over the coming year.


What kind of new collaborative projects are coming?
Just read these dozen voices below! And,
stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for more news in coming months! To spark your imagination, here are just two of the many projects discussed at The Shaker Village Gathering:

The Michigan State University School of Journalism anti-bullying project, which already is earning rave reviews and honors nationwide, is expanding to launch a new series of guidebooks for cultural competence. That widely collaborative series is just starting with 100 Questions and Answers about Indian Americans, which also is available in a Kindle edition.

Another project unveiled at The Shaker Village Gathering was Season of Gratitude, a program developed by the InterFaith Leadership Council (IFLC) of Metropolitan Detroit for use across Michigan—and as a model the IFLC now is offering to any community nationwide. Click here or on the Season of Gratitude logo, at right, to find the IFLC guidelines for participation in this national effort to promote healthy, diverse communities in November. That’s the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s declaration of America’s first nationwide Thanksgiving. If your group decides to participate, email [email protected] and we will include you in our own Season of Gratitude coverage in coming months. This is a rare, wide-open invitation to get your community excited about hospitality, thankfulness and diversity—and to shine a national spotlight on your community at the same time.


GRATITUDE was at the core of the Shaker Village Gathering, writes environmental activist and Quaker author Eileen Flanagan, whose full message is below. Church consultant Martin Davis used his message, included below, to describe the most powerful force transforming communities today: “a revolutionary sense of relationships.”

A CONNECTIVE COLUMNIST: Themes of gratitude, relationships, hospitality and welcoming of diversity were waves that flowed through these four days at Shaker Village. A newspaper columnist for a rural region in the Midwest, Henry Passenger, already has published a column telling his audience that he felt greatly encouraged by the diversity of men and women he encountered in this nationwide gathering. Henry’s immediate public response to his home audience is an encouraging sign that programs like Season of Gratitude may find welcoming communities even in rural areas of the U.S. Henry isn’t merely a writer blasting his message to the world. He is a key connective figure between this national network of writers and activists—and grassroots readers. Henry’s connective work is just one example of a historic shift in the way we all, as humans, are sharing information and shaping the world today.

‘A CIRCULAR MODEL’: Another Shaker Village participant was Mary Ann Brussat, cofounder with her husband Frederic, of the influential online magazine Spirituality & Practice. Mary Ann’s full message is below, but here’s a taste of what she has to say: We are “shifting from a top-down model of experts/journalists giving out information to the ‘general public’ to a circular model where content emerges from collaborative efforts, not just among writers but also among writers and readers. For this to happen, however, there has to be more sharing of expertise and interests. People who are out in the field working with various audiences on a day-to-day basis need ways to get the word out about what they are doing. Portal websites like ReadTheSpirit and Spirituality & Practice can connect them to a larger audience through links and articles about their work.”

GET INVOLVED: There’s so much more that readers and writers—people just like you and your friends—can do! Start by reading these dozen voices …

Voices of Shaker Village Gathering

‘Collaboraion … is Key’

Dan is one of the world’s leading peacemakers. He circles the globe, training groups in conflict transformation, nonviolence and peace-building. ReadTheSpirit has published three of his books. Dan writes:

COLLABORATION was a key goal of our gathering—and that was certainly what stood out in my experience. I had met less than a quarter of the people gathered there. So many new people with connections, skills, insights, and rich stories to exchange!

At the gathering we had dynamic discussion circles, but for me the richest discussions spun off those at the breaks, meals and follow-up circles. I was able to help some folks think through and process their projects and even their personal journeys related to those projects. I was also given some direct assistance on some of the work I am doing, but even more to be stretched to think of new ways that my own work could be magnified by developing ReadTheSpirit initiatives. Some of the collaboration will be through ReadTheSpirit’s community network, and some will be beyond ReadTheSpirit in direct connections I am making with others. I deeply appreciate the kind of catalyzing work we were able to undertake in the Shaker Village Gathering.

‘A Circular Model’

Mary Ann is an author, journalist and cofounder with her husband Frederic of the online magazine Spirituality & Practice.

AN EXPLOSION: In his Influential Marketing Blog” in 2009, Rohit Bhargava predicted that “in just a few years we will reach a point where all the information on the Internet will double every 72 hours.” This explosion of information creates an enormous challenge for those of us whose primary way of connecting with people is through online content. How do we reach our audience when there is just so much content available?

The expansion of the Internet also makes it extremely difficult for the consumer of information to wade through it all. How do we know what’s authentic, reliable, and worth our time? How do we decide which YouTube videos to watch, which blogs to read, and which websites to visit regularly?

A FLOW OR A TRAFFIC JAM? Consider these realities that further complicate the flow of information online: People today are crazy busy; our needs to be informed and inspired are competing with our needs to be effective at work, present to our friends and families, and useful in our communities. Elders, a huge percentage of the population, are often isolated geographically from family and friends and not yet savvy on using social media to stay connected.

In addition, a great deal of what you see on the Internet is not sourced. You might see a beautiful quote on a webpage or a viral meme on Facebook, but it is often attributed only to a name (and not always the right one). Anyone can hang up a shingle on the Internet offering all kinds of religious or spiritual “advice” but it can be difficult to tell what tradition or philosophy they are drawing from. This Internet free-for-all might be fine if everybody accepted that what is posted online is personal opinion. But many people are turning to the web excepting to discover authoritative, time-honored information. And not all religious and spiritual information is of that quality.

This is why it is important for the standards and practices of religious journalism—authority, balance, accuracy, fairness—be continued by those creating content for the Internet. That’s why such practices as citing sources, checking for context when quoting, and gathering information from those truly knowledgeable in a field need to be passed on to new generations of writers, bloggers, and social media users. The seasoned religion writers and the journalism teachers and students in our conversations at Shaker Village gave me hope that the professionalism of generations of newspaper and magazine religion writers could transfer successfully to the web.

Even if everything on the Internet were sourced and credited, however, there would still be a lot of it! That’s why at our website,, we consider ourselves to be “recommenders” of resources and “curators” of content. Our editors draw on their expertise not to create new content as much as to organize and prioritize the content we have.

NEW IDEAS FOR CONTENT CURATION: At Shaker Village, we learned how key word search and Search Engine Optimization could help us increase traffic to our web offerings. But I realized that key word search in particular would be helpful in making curation decisions. We should be curating content on topics that people are searching for. We can use digital tools to find out how best to respond to the needs of our world. We can use these tools to listen to readers. We no longer have to rely upon an editor’s hunches about what’s trending or what’s important.

The paradigm is shifting from a top-down model of experts/journalists giving out information to the “general public” to a circular model where content emerges from collaborative efforts, not just among writers but also among writers and readers. For this to happen, however, there has to be more sharing of expertise and interests. People who are out in the field working with various audiences on a day-to-day basis need ways to get the word out about what they are doing. Portal websites like ReadTheSpirit and SpiritualityAndPractice can connect them to a larger audience through links and articles about their work.

At the same time, the websites get some additional boots on the ground to help them understand what’s happening. At Shaker Village, I was excited to learn about research projects, outreach programs, and grassroots organizations that are making a difference. The next step is to find a way to keep up with what everybody is doing! Our Shaker Village Gathering was just a small sampling of those working in religion and spirituality outside the traditional channels of the institutional churches and religious organizations. How do we keep up? Because if we can’t keep up, the wider public won’t be able to either.

THE NEED FOR PRACTICAL CONTENT: Finally, a recurring theme in our Shaker Village conversations was the need for practical content, or what in religious and spiritual circles are called “spiritual practices.” In the mass of information on the Internet, what often rises to the surface are those succinct articles that offer concrete advice on “what to say to a sick friend” or “what to do at a Protestant funeral.” Galleries and lists of “Bests” are also popular.

This does not mean, I think, that those creating and curating religious and spiritual content need to get into the old battle waged at countless newspapers and magazine between the “news” section and the “lifestyle” section. It does mean that all content, whether news or practices, must relate to where people are living and what they are doing. Because, to be realistic about it, they just don’t have time for anything else.

Author, Journalism Educator Joe Grimm:
Turning the Lens 180 Degrees

Joe is known to journalists nationwide as the Ask the Recruiter columnist. At the MSU School of Journalism, he helped to produce The New Bullying. In 2013, his team is producing a series of cultural-competency guidebooks.

MAGIC: If you bring the right people together in the right setting, magic happens. You can count on it, even though you don’t know what form the magic will take. You just have to make a leap of faith.

The Shaker Village Gathering was shoehorned between teaching and finals for my students at Michigan State University School of Journalism. It was a time for grading and grappling with deadlines. Earlier in the week, one class had launched, 100 Questions and Answers About Indian Americans. A joint venture of the Michigan State University School of Journalism and ReadTheSpirit, this is the first in a series of guides to cultural competence. Two weeks later, I was to put on a conference of my own. But I just knew … I had to be in the circle at Shaker Village.

In my everyday world, I can be a blockhead. I can close my mind and shut off contrary ideas. This retreat shattered that. My personal block was this: People at the university who heard of the cultural competence series suggested it might merit funding. I was immediately torn between attraction and knee-jerk resistance. One of the university’s top priorities for bridging cultures is with incoming international students, especially from China. But I thought the series could not be used that way. Too narrow. Too specific. Not according to my grand plan. This new ReadTheSpirit Books series of guides should increase Americans’ competence with other cultures, religions, races and ethnicities. A guide for Chinese students, orienting them to American culture, was not in keeping with that goal, I thought.

I asked the circle at Shaker Village what I should do. In less than one sentence—in a phrase, really—Stuart Matlins untangled things. Matlins is founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of Jewish Lights Publishing and SkyLight Paths Publishing. He made the light come on! He said that what was needed here was a “complementary guide.”

A 180-DEGREE TURN: Of course! Turn the lens around. Make a 180-degree turn. Use the cultural competence prescription to explain Americans to others! This would serve a need and be true to the mission. By the end of the day, Stuart’s two words had inspired six pages of my new proposal for exactly that kind of project. Thank you, Stuart. And thanks to the entire circle for creating the magic I needed.

Environmental Activist, Author Eileen Flanagan:
‘The Whole World is a Bridge’

Eileen’s award-winning book, The Wisdom to Know the Difference, has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama. Read our interview with Eileen here. A major focus of her work is eco-justice, which you can read about at her website.

GRATITUDE: My overwhelming feeling coming out of the ReadTheSpirit gathering in Kentucky is gratitude. I feel grateful to have connected face to face with people whom I had only previously met online or over the phone. I feel grateful to have met brand new friends, some whom I’m confident I’ll collaborate with in the future and others whom I hope to see more than just on Facebook, where we are already finding each other. I feel grateful to have received encouragement for a current writing project just when it was needed and to be able to encourage others in their work.

I also feel grateful for the 100 species of birds at Shaker Village, which were so much nicer to wake up to than the sound of Philadelphia buses. I had been feeling the need to reconnect with nature, so this weekend was well timed in many ways.

The only regret I have from the gathering is that I didn’t get to speak to everyone personally or hear everyone’s voice in the large group. Our meetings seemed a microcosm of the problem Mary Ann Brussat raised about the Internet having so much content that there is not enough time to read all of it. That dilemma got me thinking about how we create space for all voices, not just in a gathering like ours, but also in the publishing world that we are all trying to navigate and transform.

I also carry away specific memories:
that Dan Buttry and I share dear mutual friends and a connection to Africa. Reflecting on discussions of gender with Megan McFeely, associate producer of Global Spirit on PBS. She blogs for the Huffington Post about her own spiritual journey following the inner Path of Sufism. Saving a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov: “The whole world is a bridge. The important thing is to not be afraid.” Pondering the question, “How do you have a relationship with someone if you don’t know what causes them pain?” Acting on David Crumm’s thesis: “There is no transformative movement that has evolved without a pattern of travel and visitation.”

I’ve already mentioned that last insight to people in my activist community and have been thinking about how to apply it there as well as with the people from our circle. If there is one overriding takeaway for me, I guess it is that relationships are both easier and more difficult to maintain in the age of the Internet but that knowing each other has never been more important.

Journalist, Peace Activist Mary Liepold:
Gathering Around Tree of Life

Mary is Editor in Chief for Peace X Peace, an international organization that strengthens and connects women’s voices in 120 countries.

“Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum.
“You came along and everything started to hum.”

Frank Sinatra sang it, and Tony Bennett too. It popped into my head during my quiet time this morning because my husband Al and I just spent several humming, buzzing days at Shaker Village in Kentucky, with other friends of David Crumm’s burgeoning ReadTheSpirit enterprises. The Shaker Village logo is a stylized tree of life—although its outsized apples also suggest the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis. The Shaker anthem Simple Gifts, with its bowing, bending, and turning, would suggest something more like a willow, or the gorgeous weeping cherries we saw here in DC earlier this spring. Of the making of meaning there is no end, but the plums are mine. You know who you are!

At most, this national gathering was a minute subsection of the vast tree of life. Still, it was more than I could find time to explore. I came home eager to reach out to the people David gathered who I didn’t manage to connect with, and Googling like mad to learn more about the ones I met. Because I went with my husband Al, we connected happily with a few of the other couples, including Ben and Judith Pratt and Paul and Jan Chaffee. Because Al is Jewish, we connected briefly with the other Jews there—publisher Stuart Matlins, Dr. Joe Lewis and Bobbie Lewis, and Rabbi Bob Alper―and enjoyed tapping into the Roots of the tree of life with the Sabbath prayers and blessings Joe led. And because Al loves movies, even more than I do, we shared several meals with film “curator” Ed McNulty, and I just extended my Netflix queue by at least 20 titles! (Thanks, Ed!)

CURATOR: The term curator, in the sense of someone who reaches into the great buzz and hum of the culture to lift up the best, is one of the plums I brought home from the gathering. My prize take-away from the “smart room” at large, as distinct from the people in it, was being reminded once again that it’s all about compassionate community. Yes, God, by whatever name, is at the center, but if the human relationships don’t work the divine ones probably won’t either. And because so many people have been hurt by or in their congregations, and all the rest of us have been hurt by life one way or another, healing is job one for most congregations and associations. Stuart described an extensive survey of church leaders and seminary professors who identified Bill W. and Dr. Bob, founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, as the most important spiritual leaders of the 20th century. Yes, of course! We bond across boundaries because of our afflictions.

SEEKING OUT OTHERS: If I’d gone to the meeting alone I might have found the other Catholics (or was I the only one?) and spent at least a few minutes with the very attractive Muslims, Eide Alawan and Kabir Helminski. I’m a peace person, so I’d have sought out the rather luminous Dan Buttry. I’d have spent more time with the other women, including Eileen Flanagan (who’s married to a Catholic and whose new book I can’t wait to read), Megan McFeely, and Megan Crumm, Heather Jose (a specialist in healing), and Mary Ann Brussat, who put the term curator out on the floor and who, with her husband Frederic, has devoted decades to cultural/spiritual curation. We might even have mounted a bit of an uprising. One of the thorns on this local branch of the great tree, as David acknowledged, is that the group didn’t fully represent the diversity RTS aims for. As a feminist too tamed by couplehood to be adequately uppity when the occasion demands, I was grateful for Megan McFeely’s occasional instigation. (Thank you, dear heart. Stay beautiful, vulnerable, and brave.)

It wasn’t perfect. We’re not perfect. I’m grateful to David and the RTS family. And I agree with Frank, Tony, and composers Coleman and Leigh: “It’s a real good bet the best is yet to come.”

Translator, Publisher Joe Lewis:
‘Could We Handle the Success?’

Joe’s writing has ranged from computer manuals to poetry to translation; his professional roles include establishing an independent publishing house, the Singlish Publication Society.

ONLINE VOICES: Joe is one of a number of voices from the Shaker Village Gathering already posting outward reflections via social media, blogs or newspapers. He posted his reflections at the blog within his publishing house website. Like many participants, his thoughts traveled in yet another direction—thinking about the Shakers themselves. They were hugely successful, he writes in his column, then they vanished. He asks: “Could we handle the success?”

Journalist, Food Writer Bobbie Lewis:
‘Connections to Faith, Family, Culture’

Bobbie a writer, editor and consultant. Her website is; her current recipe blog is:

The minute we drove into Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill I felt a sense of serenity and order. That’s exactly what the Shakers were trying to achieve through their communal social structure, architecture, furniture design and all other aspects of their society. ReadTheSpirit could hardly have chosen a more appropriate place for a retreat examining the current status and future of interfaith efforts to improve life in our home cities, the United States and the world.

I felt a bit like a gate crasher in the group, which included people who have done—and are doing—remarkable things. I’ve been interested in interfaith work for many years, possibly as a by-product of being the only Jewish girl in my class throughout elementary school. Since retiring last summer from full-time work, I have been able to spend more time on volunteer efforts, including serving on the board of WISDOM (Women’s Interfaith Solutions for Dialogue and Outreach in Metropolitan Detroit). But these meager efforts pale by comparison to what most of the conference participants have done: writing, publishing, teaching, founding and leading organizations that are doing important things. I was humbled (in true Shaker tradition) to be among them and to learn from them.

PLAN AHEAD FOR THE 2014 NAIN CONFERENCE: I recently joined the planning committee for the 2014 North American Interfaith Network conference, which will be in Detroit in 2014. Several other committee members were at the Shaker Village gathering, and it was helpful to me to get to know them better. Some of those from other states are also active in NAIN, so I look forward to reconnecting with them at this year’s conference in Toronto and next year’s in Detroit. (Plan ahead for the 2013 and 2014 conferences by visiting the NAIN site.)

COMING SOON—FEED THE SPIRIT: The most exciting part of the weekend for me was being asked to work with ReadTheSpirit on developing a new web portal, Feed The Spirit, that will focus on food and its connection to faith, family and culture. So many of the recipes we enjoy come with wonderful stories attached: about the person who gave us the recipe, or the holiday it’s connected to, or a trip we took when we first enjoyed it. I’m hoping the people I met on the weekend will join me in this exploration.

Author, Cancer Thriver Heather Jose:
Compassion for those with invisible challenges

Heather Jose is known for her work in changing the way cancer patients think about their journey. She is one of the writer-activists who sparked the trend toward describing these men and women as “cancer thrivers.” She runs Go Beyond Treatment seminars.

ONLINE VOICES: Many conversations at the Shaker Village Gathering centered on Compassion, Kindness, Civility and Welcoming. As she mulled these themes, Heather Jose returned home and posted her newest weekly column on remembering the millions of men and women whose health challenges are largely unknown, invisible or unpredictable.

Living in a Time of Transformational Chaos

Margaret is an educator, writer and retired United Methodist pastor. Her writing and teaching focuses on the spiritual stories of women both in the Bible and in contemporary life.

Gleanings from Pleasant Hill: 1. Energy, optimism, hope. 2. More comfort, less anxiety about living and working in this time of transformational chaos. 3. Experiencing Shaker Village, KY (like Green Lake, WI) as a “thin place” on our Creator’s beautiful earth.

And, 4. The gathering, in my mind’s eye, was a pebble in a pond, the rings expanding from central Kentucky to southeast Michigan (including East Lansing), Akron, Vermont, New York City, the greater D.C. area, North Carolina, Atlanta, and west to California—any place we call home (and I don’t know the home bases all of us). How far the rings will expand in the future I do not know, but opportunities and possibilities abound. The gathering was a time of reaching beyond where we’ve been to a wider place of inclusion and understanding.

Enlarging the Circle of Connections

Henry is a long-time copy editor, working for many years in daily newspapers.

ONLINE VOICES: Henry’s efforts since Shaker Village are summarized at the top of this story. His audience is rural Tuscola County in Michigan’s Thumb. You can read his column on the Shaker Village Gathering at the Tuscola Today website.

‘Tis the Gift to Think of Others’

Benjamin is a columnists at ReadTheSpirit and at the website for the Day1 radio network. He travels widely to speak, convene workshops and to learn from other caregivers. He has been part of the ReadTheSpirit team since our founding in 2007.

QUESTION: What happens when a virtual community finally meets face to face?

Answer: Simple Gifts, sharing openly, honestly ’til “true simplicity is gained.” Our ReadTheSpirit community—editors, publishers, writers, advocates, colleagues from other online interfaith spiritual and cultural organizations, educators, technical wizards—finally came out of virtual obscurity and lived face to face for several days in Shaker Village, KY. We celebrated the “gift to be simple” to “find ourselves in the place just right…the valley of love and delight.” We sang the ol’ Shaker song written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848, but more importantly, we lived it. We gathered as Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Sufis, Christians—the religious and spiritual—forging the bricks to build community for the future. We experienced, as Brackett’s song reveals,

‘Tis a gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”,
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real.

Journalist, Consultant Martin Davis:
A Revolution in Relationships

Marty is a journalist and consultant known nationally to religious leaders grappling with congregational development and new media.

The notion of “building community” has long been at the center of the world’s religions—both major and minor. It does not surprise, therefore, that from new communities within established bodies that revolutionary changes emerge. One of what will become many such communities was on display in Kentucky this past weekend as David Crumm and John Hile brought together individuals working on dynamic new communities in the American world of faith.

More than people looking for new ways to do “church” or “interfaith”—though both were well represented—people in this group are changing the fundamental relationship structure upon which faith rests. Sometimes with, and sometimes without, the traditional overarching structures that are today’s faith communities and leaders.

As one who fits in the category of a “None” (people who self-identify on surveys as “spiritual but not religious” or who check “none of the above” when asked which faith tradition they belong to), the revolution I observed was how far the members of this group have grown beyond the question of how will religion survive? How will faith survive?

‘A NEW STAGE OF AWARENESS’: Whether they are motivated by frustration with these questions, disenchantment with traditional faith traditions, or have reached a new stage of awareness of community in their existing work, these individuals have let go of “growth models” and “theological concerns” in favor of joining with those committed to framing faith around the concept of shared values.

What does this look like?

  • A Jewish publisher who has connected the notion of religious “hospitality”—being welcoming and understanding of those outside your community—to larger global issues around civil society. For example, how does one act at a funeral when the deceased’s tradition is not your own?
  • Collectors of “resources” for spiritual people who want new ways of living that connect with selected elements of faith traditions and connect with others via new technologies.
  • People who are joining concern for the tens of millions of Americans who find themselves in the role of caregiver and, because of these responsibilities, disconnected from their established communities of support.
  • People pushing women’s issues to the next stage of incarnation.
  • Artists using humor and music to connect peoples separated by theology and politics in their lives.
  • And ReadTheSpirit staff who are leveraging technology to produce the information and materials these (above) people are generating in innovative and customized ways that not only meet needs, but generate revenue for those who produce the work and allow them to continue their work.

RELATIONSHIPS: Underlying all of this work is a revolutionary sense of relationships each person demonstrates. Relationships based not only upon the ideas of friendship, the suffering servant, or civility, but most important upon a radical notion of hospitality that rightly begins with a willingness to lay aside their own preconceptions about which groups and people are “genuine” and listen deeply to the needs being expressed by those around them.

It is this radical hospitality that both defines, and drives, every person in the room. As is appropriate, this radical hospitality was on display not only in the work of those attending, but among the individuals themselves.

My own off-hand comment during a discussion about mental illness, caregiving, and the challenges this disease has imposed upon my own family led to quiet moments of support outside the main meeting hall. Expressions of concern, stories of shared struggles, and extraordinary offers to help emerged. These expressions, one could say, are timeless and central to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds. But as studies have shown repeatedly, many people in faith communities receive these expressions of help with strings that tie them to judgments or a desire to “fix” whatever problem is faced.

WITHOUT STRINGS: Both the work of the people in the room, and the relationships that were joined, came without strings. Only a willingness to enter a relationship and work together to hear what those thirsting for an understanding of their relationship to the divine are genuinely asking for.

The revolution in relationship on display this weekend is no doubt based in ancient practice and faith expression. But then, most every revolution in relationship (Martin Luther and Erasmus, the Shakers, and Martin Luther King, to name but a few) was likewise begun.

Share in this discussion

Continue the conversation! You are free to quote from this column, crediting the individual writers.  You are free to republish and share the photos, as long as you credit: Photos by David Crumm for

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


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)


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.


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:


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.

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

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

David Frenette on The Path of Centering Prayer

In Part 1 of our series this week, we introduce two authors who are breaking Christian boundaries and are inviting men and women to find the deep riches in the Christian tradition. In Part 2, we interview Chris Haw, who talks about his odyssey from the Willow Creek evangelical megachurch to a Catholic parish in a poor neighborhood. Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with David Frenette in …


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.DAVID CRUMM: Let’s start by describing the history of “centering prayer.” Readers probably know that it’s an ancient form of contemplative prayer—something associated with monasteries. But, there’s a very important part of this history we should mention: In the 1970s, three Trappist monks decided to teach these traditions to modern people in practical ways. They were Father Thomas Keating—your mentor who writes an introduction to your new book—plus Father William Meninger and Father M. Basil Pennington. So, tell us how you connected with these teachings. I know that you were raised in a family with no real religious practices. Then, you studied Eastern religions for quite a while. You’re trained in psychology. Tell us more.

DAVID FRENETTE: I first met Father Thomas Keating in 1982. At that point, I had become a Christian, and from earlier studies I already knew a lot about Buddhist and Hindu and Sufi practices of meditation. So, when I met Father Keating—here I was listening to a talk from a Christian master in this kind of meditation. I felt an immediate connection with him as a teacher and as a spiritual mentor.

Then, I exchanged a letter or two with Father Keating. I was wondering about becoming a monk but I wasn’t feeling called to a permanent monastic cloister. I got this card back from him that said, “Dear David: I understand what you’re talking about.” That line struck my heart. I felt even more of a connection. Here was someone who understood the journey I was on. I went to another workshop of his and then on a retreat that he gave and that retreat was really the beginning of my own more formal public ministry in centering prayer.

I’m trained as a therapist particularly in the transpersonal field of psychology. It’s been around for some time now as a school within psychology. I’ve worked as a psychotherapist in the past, but these days I’m primarily working as a spiritual director and a teacher.

CRUMM: If readers turn to the opening pages of your book (see Part 1 of our series), they will find a short excerpt of Father Keating’s own words that help you to complete this mini-history. Clearly, Keating seems to be anointing you as someone he hopes will keep the centering prayer movement going. He even describes your own work as the next wave of “contemplative research and development.” So, how do you describe to newcomers the range of this practice? In your book, you suggest it could run all the way from the Quakers’ meditative silence to more Eastern practices of meditating with a focus on one’s breathing, or on a single word that is repeated.

FRENETTE: The instructions and the contemplative attitudes I describe in this book are taken from small-group teaching and retreats on what we call “centering prayer.” In our practices, we do encourage people to choose sacred symbols or sacred words to use in this form of prayer. So people may find connections with practices in a number of traditions, but what I am describing in this book come from the centering prayer communities where I have worked. I lived for 10 years in a centering-prayer retreat center.

DAVID FRENETTE: Experiences that go beyond words

David Frenette (left) with Father Thomas KeatingCRUMM: Given your years of living, as a lay person, in a centering-prayer community, you know that this practice normally is taught in person. It’s taught in a retreat or it’s developed one-on-one with a spiritual director. Are people really going to pick up that much from reading about it in a book?

FRENETTE: This is a good question. This book really comes out of the deepening needs of our communities. How do we help more people to learn about these practices? You’re right that the heart of the Christian contemplative life is one that always has been awakened and transmitted in settings with other people. This goes all the way back to the ancient Desert Fathers, where we find the first recorded teachings on how to live the contemplative life. Those teachings arose in small communities and often between an elder—a father or a mother—and a student. Trying to share more widely these kinds of personal encounters, Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating both used books to convey these ideas. Merton’s books are a good example of written words that help to form and shape something that goes beyond the words for readers. (chuckles) But, you’re right! Any book on contemplation is really in the service of something that cannot be articulated in words.

DAVID FRENETTE: Turn 180 degrees. Start with ‘Amen.’

CRUMM: In your instructions for prayer, you deliberately reshape our use of words—drawing from ancient, worldwide traditions of using words as doorways to deep medtiation. I encourage people to read the whole book to understand the full scope of this. But let’s give just one example. You flip around the almost-ignored last word in most prayers, “Amen,” and turn it 180 degrees to begin a new form of prayer.

FRENETTE: “Amen” is the word that ends most Christian prayers. It’s the end of the Our Father. But, “Amen” also is a disposition that goes to the heart of contemplative prayer. The word means “so be it” or “let it be.” In contemplative prayer that’s an important truth. We don’t have to go out and search. God is there already. We are opening ourselves up to God and receiving God. So, at one point in the book, I write about that contemplative attitude of “Amen” as a way to show that even the word that ends traditional Christian prayers is actually an opening to deeper meditation. I’m trying to show people that we’re really talking about an orientation of prayer that stems from what we already experience in traditional prayer.

CRUMM: This is important. Centering prayer isn’t taking people away from orthodox Christianity. I know that some strict evangelicals are suspicious of this form of prayer. But, the truth is: This form of prayer arises right out of the New Testament teachings of Jesus.

FRENETTE: That’s right. Contemplative prayer and the whole tradition of Christian meditation goes back to the teachings of Jesus in Matthew Chapter 6 where Jesus is asked how to pray. He says to start by going into your inner room, closing the door and praying in secret. Then, Jesus tells us, our Father who sees in secret will reward you. Jesus goes further to instruct the prayer we call the Our Father, which is a prayer about daily life—forgiveness and relationships, temptation and difficulties with other people.

DAVID FRENETTE: From an inner room—into the world

CRUMM: One of the myths about contemplative prayer is that it carries people away from daily life. It’s a way of fleeing from the needs of our families, our communities, our world. While there are some famous locked-away communities of contemplatives, the movement you’re describing in your book always takes us back out into the world, right?

FRENETTE: The words of the Our Father focus on very practical things—like our daily bread. Yes, you can see this in the sequence Jesus presents to his followers in Matthew. He doesn’t instruct the Our Father first. He says, first: Go to your inner room and pray in secret. That passage is one of the great sources in the gospels for contemplative prayers.

For most people the trajectory of Christian contemplation is to develop a daily practice, supplemented by going on retreat once in a while, then the contemplative practice is expressed through the commitments we make in daily life. Jesus teaches this in that same chapter, Matthew 6. Jesus says that giving in compassionate ways to people in need should be done in secret—so your left hand doesn’t know what your right hand is doing. He’s saying that we shouldn’t do this driven by a hidden agenda. Jesus is teaching us to cultivate a contemplative form of prayer, then have it expressed in life through service in practical ways as a natural expression of daily living.

DAVID FRENETTE: Discovering that we are home, already

CRUMM: As I was reading your book, I kept thinking of the writings of Frederick Buechner, one of my own life-long inspirations. Among my favorite Buechner books is The Longing for Home: Reflections at Midlife. What you describe in this whole practice of contemplative prayer feels like what Buechner tries to describe as a longing for home. Is that a fair connection to make?

FRENETTE: Coming home or realizing that we are home—that’s a wonderful image that lies at the heart of the contemplative life. Unfortunately, we seem to be alienated from our true home in God—our true home in the deepest sense of who we are as men and women created in the image of God. We are distracted in so many ways in our daily lives. These days, there is so much technology stimulating us, drawing our attention. Yet, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves—that’s also one of the great teachings of the contemplative life.

We don’t have to search for God—rather, we allow ourselves to be loved by God. When we quietly sit and pray at the start of the day, even for 20 minutes, we are brought into an awareness of the divine presence. As we cultivate this, we remain aware of this presence throughout our day. We discover that we don’t have to be in a monastery or a church to be at home with God. We can be at home with God while driving a car, working at a desk or doing dishes in the evening. What we are talking about is the awareness that: Wherever we are, home is possible.

CRUMM: So, last question: Is this movement of prayer growing? Or fading?

FRENETTE: I see Christian forms of contemplative prayer and meditation moving in waves. The explosion of interest we saw in the 1970s settled in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now, I think it’s deepening further. Meditation practices from Asian traditions are going deeper now. Today, people talk about the development of a uniquely Western or even a specifically American form of Buddhism. Reaching that point shows real spiritual depth in these movements.

For American Christians, the first wave of contemplative prayer came in the 1950s and ‘60s with writers like Thomas Merton. Then in the ‘70s and ‘80s there were those Trappist monks led by Thomas Keating offering practices like centering prayer to people outside monastic cloisters. Then, in the current generation I think the wave is more widespread, moving in more subtle ways that may be more difficult to see as easily. But, people are developing more teachings. New small groups are forming in many places. Now, we’ve reached a point where contemplative prayer practices are available in many different Christian denominations—and even to people who start this practice saying that they’re from no specific religious tradition. More and more people are recognizing that God is working in their lives and they want to actively cooperate with that through centering prayer and practice. I hope that this book helps to spread that good news.

Care to jump back and read Part 1? It’s a story that introduces Chris Haw and David Frenette as two important barrier breakers in Christianity. In Part 2, we talk with Chris Haw.

Want the book? You can order The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God—from Amazon.

Care to learn more about Centering Prayer? In 2009, ReadTheSpirit interviewed Father Thomas Keating about his decades of teaching contemplative, centering prayer.

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

Creative spirituality: Born on Wheels; Finding Home

Where is home?
That’s the defining question for millions of men, women and children, now. Millions of older Americans are adapting to moves in retirement. Millions of young adults are moving in with their parents, because they can’t afford homes. And, of course, around the world homelessness affects huge populations. One of our most popular ReadTheSpirit columns, this spring, is headlined “Another Great Reason to Join a Congregation.
What is that reason?
Good congregations are like homes.

Writer Gayle Campbell (center in the photo at right) is an expert on the many challenges faced by 20-something adults. She has become a popular contributor to ReadTheSpirit and OurValues, our daily column that encourages civil dialogue on challenging issues in the news. In 2011, while she was serving as OurValues media director, Gayle wrote this five-part series on the tough stuff her Millennial or Gen Y generation is facing.

Since then, Gayle has circled the globe. And, wherever she goes—she’s home. We invited Gayle to write about that graceful insight, which is such a crucial adaptive skill in the tumult of this new century.

Born on Wheels
and Finding Home


Do you know the orange blossom scent of Seville, Spain?As a 20-something traveler seemingly born on wheels, I’ve wanted to leave “home” for as long as I can remember. It’s not that I disliked my hometown or was eager to leave family or friends. In fact, the opposite was true. I loved my childhood and adolescence. But growing up in a wealthy suburb on the outskirts of Detroit taught me from an early age that the world was far larger than my little corner. Just traveling two blocks into neighboring Detroit was entering another world. I could only imagine what another hemisphere might look like. I was eager to explore.

Explore I did in the five years following my official move-out date from my parents’ house. From the rural highlands of Vietnam, to the colorful streets of Bergen, Norway, to the Caribbean coast of the Dominican Republic, I immersed myself in cultures vastly different than my own. I made homes amongst the maize and blue masses in Ann Arbor, the tapas and Sangria culture of Southern Spain, the bustling streets of our nation’s capital, and the mountains of rural Honduras.

We all like to say that home is where the heart is—but I found myself scattering bits of my heart in nearly every corner of the world. One might think such transience would leave me feeling restless, displaced, homeless, even. On the contrary, I feel richer, more content, and like I belong—not only in one place, but in many. It’s not that I don’t have a home; but rather that I am fortunate enough to have places all over the globe I call home.

Can you hear the sound of the Metro in Washington D.C.?So what exactly defines these homes for me? What separates the houses I lived in from the homes?

For starters, I never called my first-year college dormitory home. Try as I did to make my 12-by-12 room, community bathroom, and shared cafeteria my own, it never really felt “homey.” At this stage of my life, home was still very well defined as my childhood home. But sophomore year, when I moved into a six-bedroom house off campus with five of my best friends, there was a distinct shift in my vernacular. Suddenly phrases like “I’m on my way home” became confusing—was I driving back to my parent’s house in Grosse Pointe, or walking back to my college house on Greenwood Avenue?

Over the next three years, it was this house—with its stained carpets, patchy lawn, and unfortunately unreliable plumbing—that really became home. In the midst of my transitional years, it was stable (even if the plumbing wasn’t). It was the place I could go return at the end of a long day of classes and put my feet up. It was where I knew I’d find my best friends, and where I knew I could most be myself.

But, I was still impatient to see more. So off I went, knowing I’d be back sooner or later. I spent two summers in Washington D.C., where I quickly fell in love with the smart, informed, fast-paced culture. There it wasn’t my sixth-floor apartment, or cozy air mattress on the floor that really felt like home to me. It was the city itself. It was my favorite running trail, the frozen yogurt shop around the corner, the park where I took my lunch break. It was the people all around me, and the way I felt every time my plane touched down in Reagan National Airport.

Can you feel the morning sunshine on a mountain in Honduras?The transitions continued. I left the country in January 2010 for a six-month stint in the south of Spain. The foreign culture was at first the polar opposite of home—I was surrounded by a language that wasn’t my own, traditions I didn’t know, and a big city I had yet to explore. But I was also given a new family—specifically a 65-year old woman and her 11-year old golden retriever—to help my transition. And slowly but surely, this woman became like a second mother to me, and the dog like my own. Between nightly feasts of gazpacho and Spanish tortillas, the city that smelled of sweet orange blossoms quickly became my own. Today, the smell of fresh oranges still conjures up feelings of homesickness for Sevilla.

Today I am living in our south-of-the-border neighbor, Honduras. In a little village on top of the mountains, I am about as far away from home as one could imagine. But here amid the humble, kindhearted people, old-fashioned lifestyle, and lush green mountains, I have found yet another home.

When I first arrived, all people could do was stare. Who was this strange white girl who went for runs around town? Wasn’t doing your laundry by hand on a concrete block and flipping tortillas for hours each day enough exercise for her? I was an alien to them. But as the months have passed, I have not only been accepted into this community, but the culture itself has been imprinted on me. And in this village where street names and house numbers don’t exist, I’ve found home.

Today, the question of home still arises often. While traveling, I’m constantly asked: “Where are you from?”

The first few times I left the country, this question was simple. There was no hesitation, no uncertainty. I’d been born and raised in the same town, even the same street, all my life it seemed.

Today, I pause. It’s the same pause that happens when I’m filling out the “home address” section of my resume. If we’re trying to be technical, I just came from Honduras, previously came from Ann Arbor, and originally came from Detroit.

But home isn’t defined by such technicalities. Rather, home is the intangible—the smells, tastes, sounds and feelings. Home will always be the smell of spiced apple cider on Mom’s stove at Christmastime, the chanting of “Hail to the Victors” in the Big House in Ann Arbor, the taste of Sangria, the sound of the D.C. metro, and the warm embrace of Honduran schoolchildren. And with a big thanks to frequent flyer miles, I can always go home again.

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

Lenten Voices: Benjamin Pratt near a fire in Cuba

A fire along a shoreline calls to all of our senses, wherever we encounter this sight around the world. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.Lenten Voices is an occasional series of stories by men and women reflecting on their Lenten journey. Beth Miller’s story was our first. Also today, read Heather Jose’s story.

Cuba and

By 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.


Want more from Dr. Pratt?

Across America, 65 million men and women are caregivers. You’ll enjoy Dr. Pratt’s book, A Guide for Caregivers: Keeping Your Spirit Healthy When Your Caregiver Duties and Responsibilities Are Dragging You Down.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
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Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

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

Traveling new roads with ‘Wolf nor Dog’ Kent Nerburn

Longtime readers of Kent Nerburn’s spiritual adventures are likely to picture him in motion—driving along back roads, walking in the woods and, of course, taking us with him as companions on these journeys. At the heart of it, this is the enticing spiritual voice of a Nerburn book: Dare to open the cover. Risk reading the opening lines. Don’t even pack a bag—just travel with Kent.

The newly released Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life, opens with these words: “Years ago I was traveling across the great Saskatchewan prairies—a young man, alone, with a love the road and a dream in my heart. Evening was approaching, and long shadows were darkening the draws and skeching like fingers across the rolling golden land. A rancher, passing in a truck, saw me walking and stopped to pick me up.”

With those words, Nerburn readers are hopelessly hooked—once again. Where are we headed this time? In Part 1 of our coverage of Ordinary Sacred this week, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Kent about using this book as a Lenten reader. The unfolding sacred adventure between these covers fits perfectly with that reflective season of the year for 2 billion Christians around the world. But the truth is: This kind of spiritual journey is timeless.

Remember that powerful little sentence in Genesis 12 that kicked off the Western world’s love affair with spiritual journeys? “So Abraham went.”
Or, recall the words of Homer that raise the curtain on The Odyssey: “Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide.”
Generations of American students have marched through the opening lines of Beowulf: “Forth he fared at the fated moment.” And, of course, millions have tagged along on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a boy who is brow-beaten by a home-spun sermon about the need to try to reach Heaven (and avoid going to Hell). In the face of such pressure, Huck defiantly stakes out his claim to the American journey: “All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.”
Then, of course, there’s always Frost: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”

Right now, Kent Nerburn and his wife Louise Mengelkoch (a writer and editor who taught for years at Bemidji State University near their home) are quite literally on the move again. The next generation in their family has relocated far to the West, so Kent and Louise are planning to migrate in that direction.
Kent is even thinking of selling a landmark he created for the woods around their current home—a large wooden body of Christ that Kent sculpted and painstakingly weathered over many years. Countless Americans know Kent as a popular author, especially of Native American and on-the-road stories, but he was trained both in theology and in the fine arts as a gifted sculptor.

David Crumm speaks with Kent Nerburn in:


DAVID: I love the mental picture of what’s unfolding now, Kent! You and Louise are on the move, once again, but first you have to figure out what to do with Christ. Right there in that one line, we’ve got the story of your life. And, having visited you and Louise in your home—I know this is quite literally true. You are, indeed, planning to move from your little Eden in the Minnesota woods, but first you’ve got this life-size wooden representation of Christ that has to go somewhere. What are you planning?

Kent Nerburn, courtesy of the author.KENT: Well, I could move it with me, but I’d really like to find a church that would agree to buy it—and maybe help me pay for my kids’ education. Really, I would like people to have this piece and see it as a part of their community. I’m thinking of it as ideal for a church to purchase and place at a focal point for people to contemplate. I don’t have any offers at the moment, but I’m open.

DAVID: Perhaps we can suggest to our readers that they email us ([email protected]) if they’re interested in a major artwork for a Christian house of worship. This whole process you’re undertaking feels to me the plot in one of your books.

KENT: My whole life has been traveling but Louise just retired from Bemidji State at the first of the year, so she’s just getting her sea legs under her. Moving West is a difficult decision in some ways, but both of us are so smitten with our grandkids. Now, it’s time for us to fold up our tent here in Minnesota and move to the Pacific Northwest.

DAVID: Your body of writing and this book, too, explore American restlessness. I know that, overall, you’ve been trying to help sketch a kind of American theology—a spiritual sense of what it means to live on the soil and in the waterways of this continent. So, tell us how Ordinary Sacred fits into that larger quest you’ve been undertaking for years.

KENT: Earlier, I wrote books closer to home. A lot of readers still enjoy what I wrote about family and being a father. But, by the time I was working on this book, I wanted to cast a net farther afield. As a result, readers will find stories about encounters near and far. I take readers to Oxford University, to Italy and to New Mexico. I wanted to take people in many directions. My love of art is clearly a part of this book, too, and I invite readers to think about art with me at one point. Beyond the title on the book’s cover, you might call this Surprised by God. Through it all, I wanted to end with the core conviction I have that Native spirituality is the authentic spirituality for this American land. So, that’s why I placed the story called The Circle at the very end.

DAVID: I may be one of the few readers of classic writers who is drawn to their lesser-known travel books. I love Mark Twain’s travel writing, especially his remarkable account of visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I love Charles Dickens’ non-fiction travel writing. And, I was thrilled to see that a little of Dickens’ non-fiction has been revived for his big bicentennial bash this year.

Click the cover to jump to Amazon for a copy.

KENT: I hope that readers do see the unity in the journey that runs through this book. I put this together from various pieces and I hope that I have stretched the sinews far enough and solidly enough so that readers see it all as connected.

The final story, The Circle, is something that I wrote originally with no knowledge of where it would wind up. Writing that story was like catching lightning in a bottle. I was there at a service and, as soon as I got home, I wrote up the story. Then, I felt strongly that The Circle fit into this book. In the end, that story becomes the linchpin for the entire book. This time, the book doesn’t feel like it is set around my kitchen table in the center of my family. Readers move with me far afield in these pages and then The Circle really brings it all home.

DAVID: This raises the question of ceremony or ritual—activities in our everyday lives that help us to see the sacred in the moment. In the course of this book, readers will stand at your shoulder as you eat with friends, as you tell stories, as you open a toolbox and as you attend this final burial. Part of what you’re teaching us in this book is that recognizing the sacred involves recognizing patterns in our lives that open windows to the rest of the world. Do you agree?

KENT: In The Wolf at Twilight, I write about the difference I see between ceremony and ritual. To me and in the Native sense of this, ceremonies are part of a larger framework of actions that have been honed and proven through generations to bring a person into spiritual awareness. Theologians might debate this point, but this is my own linguistic distinction. I see rituals more as: habit made holy.

Overall, I’m interested in what we can do, each day, through eyes that see the spiritual significance of a moment. Some of these things are very basic. One of the small graces in my life is my first morning cup of coffee. I always hold it, before I take that first sip of coffee. I regard that first sip as the coming of new life for the new day into my body. It’s a small thing but it’s meaningful.

‘Showing kindness … when we don’t feel like it’

DAVID: You have a hugely compassionate heart. In some ways, you look like a big, rugged, woodsy guy and some of your writing is quite muscular. There are strong emotions in your books. But there’s a deep compassion that runs through your body of work. I know that this stems from your childhood and runs throughout your life.

KENT: Yes, my father was the director of disaster services for the American Red Cross in Minneapolis. So, he would go out to all the fires and disasters that took place and would arrive usually at the same time the police and fire fighters were doing their work. I would go with him, starting when I was about 12 years old. An apartment building might have burned down and we’d be there getting ready to distribute clothes and blankets, food and water to the people affected by the fire. Sometimes, if it was winter, he’d put someone in a car to keep warm. I can recall sitting in a car at age 12 with a woman who had just gone through a fire.  She was in her 80s and was sobbing because her cat was left behind in the apartment. I knew that no one could go save this cat, at that point. I remember thinking: What can I say to this woman? So, what I did was: I sat and listened to this woman. I stayed with her in that car. Of course, my daily life as a kid was full of all the other things that fill a kid’s life: school and girls and sports and all the rest. But I found myself, at an early age, called to these moments of empathy. My life definitely was nurtured by those events with my father and the people we were serving. My role was sitting with people and listening to their stories.

What calls me to mindfulness most in my life, now, is making an effort to show kindness in situations where I don’t feel very kind. Showing our good and benevolent values, especially at times when we don’t feel like it—that’s important. This might mean spending extra time with someone, asking them about themselves, and really listening. It’s so easy to start a conversation and use it just as a springboard to talk about ourselves. In fact, this interview is not really natural for me because here I am talking all about myself. I’m glad that you called on me to do this, but on a daily basis I try to spend more time engaging with people about their lives. And, when I have a chance, I try to listen to the people who no one else listens to. That’s the kind of practice that most animates my life: the pursuit of kindness and giving of my time to listen, particularly to people who others won’t stop to hear.


DAVID: Throughout your writing career, you have drawn some extremely loyal fans. You’ve racked up a remarkable amount of 4-star and 5-star reviews on your book pages in Amazon, for example. What do you know about these readers?

KENT: At one point in my writing, I had two separate groups of readers: One group followed my Native writings and one group followed my general spiritual writings. In a way, this has become my own spiritual journey to try to connect these realms in my life. As I’ve said, I am trying to articulate an authentic American spirituality. I’ve followed that path in the sculptures I have created that try to combine Western-European art traditions with this American land. For some years, the Native track in my writing moved so far to the forefront that some of the readers of my more spiritual books felt a little betrayed. Yet, for the most part, they have come along with me because readers can see that I’m trying to inhabit the Native books with the same spiritual ideas that run throughout my work.

Among my readers, I know that I have more women who are readers, than men. I know that there’s a kind of male reader, who I think of as actually gentler than I am myself, who likes to follow my work. I’m seeing some younger readers showing up at events where I appear and I like to see that. People are drawn to my books if they have an eco-awareness, if they are interested in Native spirituality or if they have a Buddhist kind of sensibility about the world. The unifying picture across my regular readers can be summed up as: They’re people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. More than that, they’re people who embrace the idea that there is a great mystery to life, an overarching creative force and a permeating spirituality in our everyday lives.

Care to read more about Native American life?

ReadTheSpirit publishes Dancing My Dream, a memoir by Warren Petoskey. If you click this link, or the book cover, at right, you’ll find Warren’s homepage within ReadTheSpirit. A beautiful city on the shore of Lake Michigan still bears Warren’s family name.

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