Neither Wolf’s Kent Nerburn invites us on a new pilgrimage Nerburn ranks among America’s beloved storytellers and spiritual guides. His specialties in past books include the natural world, Native American wisdom, the relationships between parents and their children—and the many ways that fine arts are a catalyst to insight. He began his career as a theologian and sculptor. But, he is most famous, today, for Neither Wolf nor Dog, required reading on Native Americans’ relationships with non-Indians (along with its more recent sequel The Wolf at Twilight). Inspirational quotations from Nerburn’s many published works, especially his book on fatherhood Letters to My Son and his Wolf books, are sprinkled liberally across the Internet these days. Even the celebrated guru Eckhart Tolle sings praises for Nerburn’s newest volume.

In Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life, Nerburn gives us a handy companion for a personal pilgrimage wherever we find ourselves living today. Even this book’s cover with its barn-wood imagery, compact size and comfortable-to-the-fingers matte finish makes it a perfect book for a long walk or a quiet afternoon in a favorite corner.

At first, the vivid vignettes in Ordinary Sacred may seem like disconnected gems. The book opens with Kent inviting us to travel across the northern prairies, an echo of the Wolf adventures. Then, we drop South for a brief detour along a stretch of legendary Route 66. But, wait a minute! We’re also stopping by Oxford University and, suddenly, we’re in Florence contemplating the works of great masters. Around that point in the book, we discover that these aren’t random gems. Rather, this is a string of beads. This is a pilgrimage. And, in the end, when we stand with the author in “The Circle,” one of this slim book’s final stops, the wisdom of this journey comes home to us like a lump in the throat.

That’s what makes this book, at the start of Lent 2012, a perfect Lenten reader. Of course, ReadTheSpirit is urging readers to consider our own 40-day, 40-chapter Lenten reader, Our Lent: Things We Carry. But Nerburn’s 13-part Ordinary Sacred is another kind of Lenten pilgrimage. There’s no explicitly Christian message here, yet this cycle of stories moves through a long spiritual journey toward a death, a burial and transcendence. Truly, these are Lenten themes. At its root, this book and Nerburn’s entire body of work remind us that all journeys are sacred, all places along the way are sacred and, ultimately, all moments are sacred, if we have eyes and ears and hearts to recognize the truth.

Do you find yourself generally non-religious, but yearning for deeper daily connections between your life and the larger living world around us? Or, do you find yourself deeply religious, yet mired in the sameness of your congregation’s weekly disciplines? In either case, Ordinary Sacred is your invitation to a potent journey into a deeper and a wider world.

This week, we welcome our friend and colleague Kent Nerburn back to the pages of ReadTheSpirit, where Editor David Crumm has interviewed the author and artist at the start of this Lenten season. Later this week, we will publish our full interview, but today we share what Kent had to say about …

Ordinary Sacred by Kent Nerburn
… as a Companion for Lent

In our interview, Kent Nerburn says this about Lent … would love it if readers took hold of this book as a reader for Lent. When I began writing this book, I thought of it almost as a classic Book of Hours, moving through the day from Matins to Vespers. That became an underlying theme in this book, definitely a part of its spiritual arc. The sections move from Dawn’s Awakening to Night’s Embrace.

These days, I don’t practice as a Catholic anymore, but the Christian tradition will always be a part of my life. These religious traditions have a wisdom far greater than anything we could create on our own as individuals. So, this book really is an effort to touch both religious touchstones and broader spiritual touchstones, as well.

In my own days of theological training, I was guided by the Imitation of Christ and scripture and in these texts you see always see this shadow of crucifixion behind everything. As an artist, I’ve sculpted figures who are caught up in this deep spiritual experience. I came out of pre-Vatican II Catholicism and my life has been a long journey from those early heavy burdens of teachings like original sin toward my own celebration of the joy and mystery of life.

From my earliest Catholicism all the way through graduate school, I took Lent very seriously. It was the season I found that I could enter into most completely. In about 1980 or 1981, I had a chance to live in a Benedictine monastery in British Columbia so that I could do a sculpture for the monastery. I agreed that I wouldn’t sign the work. There was this medieval notion of an artist doing all to glorify God. But, when I got there, these Benedictines presented some issues that I found difficult to swallow. I didn’t like the abbot. He seemed venal to me. He talked about poverty, but I perceived him as living with a wealth like some King Henry VIII. And, I wound up crossing swords with him more than once. I thought about leaving.

Then, at one point, he said to me: “Stay in the machine, Kent. It’ll clean you out.” And, now, that’s the way I look at Lent. I lived with those Benedictines through Lent and shared their life, their rituals, the Mass. I was back to being that Catholic child, where I began life.

I wasn’t the equal of these men. Their Lenten experience, after their years together in the monastery, was intense—so intense that many of them reached Easter and I saw them finally breaking down in tears. These were quiet men, but they had entered so deeply into the cycle of Lent that they were entirely taken over by the journey. The spiritual clarification of that Lent was beyond anything I could have imagined. I was humbled.

But, if we think about it more deeply, we realize that the year’s liturgical seasons reflect the natural course of life. They work on us, if we open ourselves to it, with an almost subterranean power to reshape our lives. That’s why I’d love it if people accepted Ordinary Sacred as a pocket meditation book for Lent. I would be pleased to accompany them in this season.

REMEMBER: You can order Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life from Amazon now. And, please come back later this week, for our complete interview with Kenty Nerburn in which the author and artist talks about his life, his work and the inspirations behind Ordinary Sacred. GREAT LENTEN COMPANION?

Of course, ReadTheSpirit is recommending our own new book, the 2nd Edition of Our Lent: Things We Carry, which now is available for all e-reading devices—as well as in a brightly colored new paperback edition as well. Click this link or click the book cover, at right, to read more about this inspiring guide to this ancient season of reflection.

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

How Ash Wednesday Found Us in a Kenyan Village Miller is an author, educator and a veteran in leading group retreats around the world. This spring, she is writing a book about the many ways people can transform local travel into spiritual pilgrimage. We invited Beth to write about entering the Lenten season …

Ash Wednesday
Found Us in Kenya


My most memorable Ash Wednesday was one I almost missed. That year, I was in a Kenyan village close to the Equator leading a “mission trip” for youth and adults. Consumed with all of the preparations for our complex journey half way around the world, I forgot this crucial date in the Christian calendar. The reminder came when I placed a telephone call to my home.

My clergy husband asked, “What are you doing for Ash Wednesday?”
My heart sank. “Nothing. Is today really Ash Wednesday?”
He insisted that I must prepare a service.
I protested that I wasn’t ordained clergy; this was outside my job description.
But he left me no option. “You can. You must.”

One of the teenagers in our Kenyan group was thrilled with the task of finding a cup of ashes. He pictured burning down something! I reminded him that there was an outdoor fire ring nearby for cooking meals. And, off he went.

What would he find? What would he bring back to us? Since early in my spiritual formation, receiving the sign of the cross as the ashes are pressed onto my forehead is a very sensory experience. Some of the ashes always cling to my eyelashes. I am careful as I brush them away, not wanting to lose the mark of the ashes. The physical act is a visible sign of an invisible grace, important to me as a child and cherished as an adult. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”—words usually read at a funeral service. Ashes remind us where we have come from and where we are going. Ashes are the result of fire. They are—what’s left. So is Ash Wednesday a day of contemplation and confession, stripping away the extraneous. After that spiritual work, we face what’s left in our lives.

The teenagers and adults around me in Kenya had packed carefully for our long journey to reach the weigh limit for our flights. We carried only the bare essentials on such a challenging trip. And, that’s the spiritual gift of Ash Wednesday: eliminating all that we can do without. Ash Wednesday sets limits that liberate our souls.

That evening in the Kenyan village, we sang songs accompanied by a guitar. I read from Psalm 51:

You desire truth in our inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. …
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

This particular group of Christians was not used to practicing open confession or testimony during worship. Nevertheless, the young man who had eagerly collected the ashes asked if he could talk. Tears started running down his cheeks. Working with Kenyan youth, those living in acute poverty, made him realize how much he took for granted. In this young man’s words, he confessed, “I am a spoiled brat.”

Rather than trying to make him feel better, I found myself saying, “I think God is speaking to you. Stay with those feelings and find where God is leading you.”

Ash Wednesday had found us. One after another, people spoke from deep places within their hearts and souls. By the time the ashes were pressed on our foreheads that night, we were a forgiven people, restored and full of joy.

We were ready for the journey that now stretched out ahead of us. more inspirational reading for Lent?

Lent is booming across the U.S. as a spiritual practice. Learn why that’s happening—and get a copy of the new book, Our Lent: Things We Carry (2nd Edition).

Please help us to reach a wider audience

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

Iona hymn writer John L. Bell talks about touring the U.S. Abbey, heart of the worldwide Iona Community on the isle of Iona off Scotland’s western coast. Photograph by John Hile.John Bell is a hot ticket for congregations, clergy conferences and Christian communities around the world, but the truth is:
He’s a tough guy to track down!
On Sunday, Bell talked with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about the start of his current U.S. (and Latin American) tour. He is sought after by Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational churches around the world. But, Bell started our interview by quickly dismissing interest in the online realm.

“I am happy to talk to you,” Bell told Crumm on Sunday, “because you know the Iona Community and the work that I am doing—but I don’t have much use for online media. The things written online aren’t all that accurate. Sometimes I am sitting at a conference, waiting to be introduced, and I realize that the person who is introducing me must have gone to Wikipedia for the details. I don’t ever to go Wikipedia or anywhere else online to read about myself. But I can tell you: There must be things online that aren’t very accurate about my life and work, because they do keep popping up as I travel.”

One problem is that Bell shares a name with nearly 50 other John Bells listed in Wikipedia, including athletes, artists, politicians, scientists—and other musicians. It takes some savvy online searching even to locate John Bell’s current American schedule. He doesn’t have his own website or blog.
So, to help John Bell accurately kick off his 2012 American tour …

AMERICAN SCHEDULE FOR EARLY 2012 Bell in one of the few online photographs available for republication.John Bell draws a crowd! Not only is he personally responsible for a long list of hymns and anthems sung in churches around the world, but he also is a popular teacher on Iona-Celtic-Christian approaches to prayer, worship and work with the world’s most needy communities. (ReadTheSpirit has published many stories about Iona’s important Christian influences. Here’s a 2011 interview with John Philip Newell, another influential Iona writer. And, from 2009, here’s an earlier interview with John Bell about his book on reviving Christianity. NOTE: All ReadTheSpirit stories can be republished, as long as you link back to our website. See our Creative Commons sharing license below.)

Coming soon: February 1-4, Bell is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a Presbyterian educational conference. Then, February 3-5, he is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at First United Methodist Church for a global music weekend. From February 13-15, he is in Phoenix, Arizona, for a clergy conference. And, February 23-25, he is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a clergy conference. In March, Bell is in Atlanta. He also is visiting two countries in South America. In May, he is in Atlanta, Tulsa and Bangor, Pennsylvania. By June, he is in North Carolina.

Best place to find details about his U.S. tours? Iona Community New World Foundation keeps track of his plans and posts updated event information—and some links for further information. The Foundation also posts a helpful index to a wide range of Iona-related links, including the Wild Goose organizaton that is John Bell’s professional home base in Scotland. Want to go right to the source in the UK realm of the Internet? The Wild Goose Resource Group also maintains a short profile of John Bell.

Interview: Iona hymn writer John Bell Abbey and cross. Photograph by John Hile.DAVID: Let’s start with biographical details. You’re John L. Bell—to distinguish you from the other famous John Bells out there. And, I believe you’re 62 right now.

JOHN: Yes, that’s right.

DAVID: Where do you live these days? That’s not clear to me from some of your online biographies.

JOHN: Glasgow, Scotland, is home, but I’m on the road between eight and nine months of most years. Right now, I’m over here in the U.S. for eight weeks doing different events. I’m also taking care of some business with my publishers and I plan to visit a small community in Paraguay. So, I’m doing some public events, some private events and some personal visiting.

DAVID: Why is Paraguay on this trip?

JOHN: We have a relationship with a small community there. Every year, volunteers come to us in Scotland from Paraguay. I want to visit their home, see where they come from, and experience some of their culture. This year, I’m also traveling in mainland Europe and in parts of England and Ireland.

DAVID: You’re an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland and you’re famous for composing music used in churches around the world. But, how do you prefer to introduce yourself before a group?

JOHN: I say that I’m a resource worker in areas of worship and spirituality. That’s really what I do. Sometimes, I work in universities and seminaries. Sometimes I work at conferences. Sometimes I work at local churches. I focus on different things in different places. I may work with congregational music and show ways that music can be improved; or I may talk about scripture and help people lose their fear of engaging with scripture; or I might help to prepare men and women getting ready for ministry in seminary; or I might work with people trying to deepen their individual spirituality.

DAVID: You have a unique perspective as an outsider, traveling widely across the  U.S. Can you tell us anything about trends you’re seeing in American Christianity?

JOHN: Oh, America is such a huge country that if I make any comments, I can immediately be contradicted by people with contrary examples. So, I would not want to make any specific comments. But, I can say this generally: I see a lot of what we might call non-liturgical churches that now are interested in styles of music and worship that have a much more ordered sequence. They are reaching out for more traditional forms. And, at the same time, I’m seeing some more liturgical churches that are trying to open up.  I see conferences organized by more traditional churches inviting people from nondenominational churches or megachurches to address them. And I’m seeing some nondenominational churches inviting people from more historical churches to speak at conferences.

DAVID: So, you’re seeing something of a crossover in Christian culture. Do you think American churches are looking for some kind of new middle ground?

JOHN: I don’t know if they’re trying to find a middle ground. But, I can say this: I would hate to see the church become so intermixed in traditions that we wind up with a sort of morass of grayness. For example, if your gift in the church is lively song and a strong emphasis on social justice like the Mennonites, then that’s an important and distinctive gift to share with others. Orthodox and Catholic churches have gifts for exploring the mystery of God and those are true gifts. Some traditions have gifts in their welcoming nature and in showing hospitality. I would say: Major in your gifts! A failure of ecumenism would be to merge everything into a sort of shapeless mass of sameness. God made us different to represent the full spectrum of all colors within Christianity.

DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we have covered some of these movements back and forth through Christian tradition. For example, Shane Claiborne—a very popular American speaker and author among innovative Christian leaders—now is heavily promoting Common Prayer. There’s a new edition coming out this week of his book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

JOHN: Yes, I have friends in Britain who already are using his Common Prayer book and appreciate that, because it’s rooted both in traditional practices and in contemporary language. He draws on the spirit and wisdom of a whole lot of people in his Common Prayer book. I think that approach is much more attractive to people in this postmodern society—rather than telling people that they have to spend endless hours wrestling with tangles of archaic religious language in some prayer book from an earlier era.

DAVID: You and John Philip Newell and other Iona writers are now known around the world. Do you think of yourself as a global voice?

JOHN: No. I don’t think about it that way at all. I believe that for my work to have any authenticity, it has to be rooted in the place from which I come. All my own writing and composing is done in Scotland. I don’t write anything while I’m traveling—with one exception. I do believe that it’s important for me to engage with and learn form people in the developing world.

But, I never write something with the thought that I expect it to be translated into other languages. I never stop to think whether someone in a distant country—Finland or Argentina or some other country—will want me to come talk about what I’ve just written. If I thought like that, then I would have taken my eye off the ball. Spirituality must be localized and nurtured in the soil from which it has grown.

And I don’t think of what I write as coming directly from me to the world. That’s not how I work at all. I would never write a book where the material hadn’t gone through friends and colleagues and people I trust in our community. My work is developed in conversation with other people. I have a very strong feeling that God has blessed me and given me gifts that come out of a particular geographical and historical situation. As long as I’m true to that—then what I do may have value elsewhere. But if I were to think of myself as some kind of global writer, then I would lose the spiritual plot of my life. That may not be true for everyone, but it’s true for me. I live in Scotland; I’m a person who is Scottish; my heritage draws on the experience of the Celtic church; and our faith has been formed by living and working among impoverished communities. These are my spiritual roots. These are what give me energy.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

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Interview with Brent Bill, Beth Booram on ‘Awaken …’ the Shore … Photograph by Rodney Curtis.This week, we are introducing an innovative book by veteran retreat leaders and spiritual guides J. Brent Bill and Beth Booram called, Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God.
IN PART 1 of our coverage
, we gave readers an overview of this book for individuals, small groups and congregational leaders—plus, we published an excerpt by authors Brent Bill and Beth Booram.
, you’ll meet Brent and Beth in our weekly author interview and learn how best to use this buffet of spiritual ideas they have published, designed to light up sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
AND: Enjoying the beautiful photos by Rodney Curtis? Read about his recent photo safari.

FEBRUARY 2012 UPDATE: THE CONTEST! Brent and Beth are launching a 5-week contest to get in touch with your senses in a spiritual way. They’ve got invitations sprinkled across their websites, but the key location is the Facebook page for their new book Awaken Your Senses.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Beth and Brent in …

ON ‘AWAKEN YOUR SENSES … EXPLORING THE WONDER OF GOD’ Brent Bill leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of J. Brent Bill.DAVID: Let’s start with a very practical question. Your new book is designed for individual inspiration and small-group discussion—but some of our readers may be interested in inviting you two to pay a personal visit. How do readers get in touch with you? For example, I know that your own website, Brent, lists a lot of your upcoming events. If people visit your site, they’ll find places you’re planning to visit throughout 2012. Are most of those appearances related to the new book?

BRENT: Yes, my home page lists a lot of appearances. Some are based on this new book. Some are based on past books I’ve written. Some are just me appearing. Some are dual appearances. If readers are interested specifically in what we’re doing with Awaken Your Senses, I suggest they visit two places online. First, go to our Facebook page for Awaken Your Senses. We’ve got a lot of information there about upcoming workshops, retreats and other programs. Then, we’ve also got a new website at—and make note of that special “dot-us” ending to the URL. That website tells more about the book and about us, as authors. You can contact us both through Facebook and through the new website.

BETH: Like Bill, I have my own personal website, which includes a blog and other things that readers might find interesting.

DAVID: What kinds of programs do you present?

BRENT: We do it all: individual readings, Friday-through-Sunday workshops, Saturday-one-day workshops. One of us can come. Both of us. We can tailor what we present to what an organization needs.

DAVID: Beth, I’d like you to tell us a little more about your work. Longtime ReadTheSpirit readers are likely to know a little bit about Brent’s work. Our interview with Brent about his earlier book, Sacred Compass, is still popular with readers. So, tell us more about your background, Beth. Here’s what I know from promotional materials for your book: You’re described as “a spiritual director, congregational consultant, retreat leader.” And I know that you were on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ for a while.

BETH: It’s not easy to give a simple answer to your question. I was raised Presbyterian and then in college, when I really began my own spiritual journey in earnest, I was exposed to Campus Crusade. My husband and I did serve with Crusade for a number of years. So there was a very evangelical context in which I was raised. Then, for a while, we were at a megachurch on the north side of Indianapolis. Over the years, I spread my wings more and more and became exposed to broader expressions of the Christian faith. Now I attend a small, nondenominational church. We’re less than 150 people. So, I’ve come a long way in my spiritual journey. If you asked me to describe my spiritual life, I would say that most purely I’m a contemplative. Yes, I am evangelical, but that term has so much baggage today that I don’t use it often. It’s confusing because people assume that word refers to one particular set of beliefs and positions. I feel quite comfortable in a wide range of spiritual streams. These days, for example, I find inspiration in a lot of Catholic writers.  And I do a lot of work in mainline churches.

DAVID: Name a few of the authors who inspire you.

BETH: First, I have Parker Palmer’s books and his writing has taken me to some important places. I read Henri Nouwen and Thomas Keating.

DAVID: Of course, Nouwen sadly passed away in the 1990s, but we have featured Father Keating in the pages of ReadTheSpirit. Yes, indeed, your range of religious experiences has expanded. Readers will see that in the pages of your new book. Just to go a little further—I detect some Celtic influence, too.

BETH: Oh, yes. I love the work J. Philip Newell has been doing. In fact, we have a prayer by him, “Prayer for Awakening the Soul,” on the first page of our book.

‘SOME PEOPLE MAY BE JOLTED BY THIS BOOK’ and retreat leader Beth Booram. Image courtesy Beth Booram.DAVID: Some readers may be jolted by your book. There still are quite a few Christian preachers who say we shouldn’t trust our bodies. They preach that our five senses are pathways to temptation. Does it surprise you that your book might be provocative?

BETH: There are some churches that are exclusively focused on emphasizing the Bible as the one way God communicates with us. But, I think most people, when they think about it, would agree that God arrests our attention in many ways in our spiritual journey. That’s what we’re really talking about in this book. What Christians often refer to as the Word of God is much bigger than the Bible itself. We say that God spoke and the world was created. God’s Word comes down to us like rain and it waters the earth. I think God is a self-revealing God. We can look around us and see many ways that God is disclosing truth to us. That’s what we’re encouraging people to explore.

BRENT: Some people will find this new book quite novel. The idea of accepting our bodies as carriers of spiritual wisdom runs up against what people often call American Puritanism. That’s not really an accurate way to think about the Puritans, but people understand that term when I use it. I’m talking about Christians who think that distrusting our bodies is an innate part of our faith.

We do have a different perspective on that. I would say, for instance, that the whole point of incarnation in Jesus coming into the world shows that Jesus wanted to experience the life that we experience. Another way to say it is: We are whole people—not just physical people separate from our spiritual lives. We are whole. Think about Adam and Eve in Eden. We are told that they walked in the cool of the evening and spoke with God. I love that imagery: What did they smell? What did they feel under foot? What did they hear?

Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have maintained much more of this sensory experience of God—the smells, touch, sight and taste of faith—compared with Protestant churches. So, yes, there may be people in some churches who are jolted by this book, who will find these ideas quite new. And, that’s why we think it’s so important to share this message.


DAVID: Having read your book, it’s clear that your spiritual approach is centered in Christianity. But, I think it’s also true that readers who are not Christian can find some great ideas between these covers. You do provide some examples beyond Christianity in your book. There’s a short section on how the Jewish seder at Passover makes rich use of all the senses to convey the sacred story of Exodus.

BETH: Absolutely, there’s a lot here for any reader. There are lots of people who describe themselves today as spiritual, but not religious. We hear that phrase many places we go. In this book, we’re talking about using everyday human experiences as windows that can open into a deeper spiritual experience.

BRENT: It’s also true that folks who are concerned about Christian orthodoxy will find that our work is rooted in the Bible and in the writings of mothers and fathers of the church. But, Beth is right. It’s not meant to be narrowly sectarian.

BETH: We’re trying to reach readers at many levels. I can see pastors in local churches reading this book for ideas they can use in worship. I could see people discussing these ideas in a small group. People can use this in a retreat. Or, some readers may want to spiritually explore their senses in individual ways.


DAVID: Let’s give a specific example from the book: Textures of prayer. You write about literally feeling with your hands the various textures around you as you engage in prayer. Perhaps corduroy fabric, or felt, or wood, or stone or other textures that might suggest themes in your prayers.

BRENT: That’s right. So often, we move through life so quickly that we don’t even notice the textures around us. But, obviously, we do respond to textures. Think about the clothes you like to wear. For example, I prefer to wear shirts that are 100 percent cotton. They feel more comfortable to me than some of the blended fabrics. Most people have textures that they respond to, that they like, that relate to things going on in their lives—if we pause and pay attention. There’s a related exercise in the book in which we suggest that people draw something—and choose their materials from surfaces they find around them in daily life. They might draw on a paper bag—or on a shiny piece of paper. That drawing exercise is another way to think about the textures in our lives.


DAVID: Well, those are just a couple of examples among dozens in this book. You really do want to expand our awareness of daily life in many ways—and expand our worship experiences, too.

BETH: Yes, that’s the larger question we’re raising. One way to think about this is: We’re showing that aesthetics do matter. In the ways we create environments around us—whether at home or at church—aesthetics augment our ability to more deeply experience our faith.

BRENT: This is important in an era when a lot of churches are increasing the digital technology they use in worship. More and more, worship is all about our eyes and ears. In many places, people don’t even pick up and hold a hymnal or a Bible anymore. Everything is up on a screen. As worship becomes more of a spectator experience, we need to challenge people to reopen all of their senses to God.

REMEMBER: Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God is available from Amazon.
If you missed it, you’ll also enjoy: In Part 1 of this coverage, we gave readers an overview of this book for individuals, small groups and congregational leaders—plus an excerpt by Brent Bill and Beth Booram.

Don’t Miss: Our columnist Rodney Curtis, a.k.a. The Spiritual Wanderer, is writing on this theme, too.

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. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

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

At home, with friends, at church: ‘Awaken Your Senses’ Woods These Are … Photograph by Rodney Curtis.Are you awake?, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Buddhists famously call it mindfulness. Christians have many names for it. This week, we are introducing two nationally known retreat leaders who are offering readers a bounty of fresh ideas for making 2012 an eye-opening, tastebud-tingling, ear-soothing year of meditation, prayer and worship. The new book (which contains a lively toolbox of ideas between its covers) is called, Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God.

Later this week, you’ll meet J. Brent Bill and Beth Booram in our weekly author interview. Make a note of that, because we also will tell you in that interview how to reach them and how to find their websites, as well. When you get to know more about their work with Awaken Your Senses you may want to make arrangements to bring these two popular retreat leaders to your part of the country for a day or a weekend. (Special note to regular ReadTheSpirit readers: These folks draw their own inspiration from a number of talented people who already are popular with our readers, including Parker Palmer, Carrie Newcomer and J. Philip Newell. So, even if you are encountering Brent and Beth for the first time, this week, you’re meeting a team with ties to other trusted friends you’ve enjoyed in the past.)

TODAY, we want to open your eyes to these ideas! We’re doing that in three ways:
1.) With an excerpt of their new book, below.
2.) A short video of Brent and Beth, below.
3.) AND, our regular columnist Rodney Curtis, a.k.a. The Spiritual Wanderer, is writing on this theme, too.


Imagine awakening to the sound of the coffeemaker as it strains its final percolations and you smell the earthy aroma of its brew. You see dim light peeking from the edges of the shades at your bedroom windows. The feel of warm, soft blankets makes it hard to get out of bed. Once up, you look out the kitchen window, focusing your eyes on the early morning light, and feel greeted with hope, reminded that God is in new beginnings.

As you drive into work, you hear a siren behind you. The sound causes you to search in your rearview mirror for the lights. The alarm prompts you to pray—to pray for whoever might be hurt and for the safety of those you love. You feel your tightened grip on the steering wheel and think to relax, to concentrate on simply being and on trusting God with your life and your day.

During work, you notice things: the tone of stress in your boss’s response to a question, the sparkle in your coworker’s eyes as she describes her new romance, the firm handshake of a customer, the cool taste of water from a drinking fountain and the scent of a woman’s perfume in the elevator. Life has so much depth and texture. You are alive to yourself and the world—curious and open to God’ subtle invitations to pray, to love, to be. With each sensory prompt, you are learning to respond the way Jesus leads you.

Dinnertime and evening hours brim with sensual greetings. You prepare a meal with your family. The sounds of chopping vegetables and sizzling meat remind you that food is a gift. Everything you see, hear, touch, smell and taste turns your meal into an occasion—not only for your stomach but also for your heart. Scrubbing greasy pots, rinsing soapy dishes and feeling the scald of hot water awaken you to the unending life cycle of soiling and cleansing, mess and order. Your thoughts turn to your own jumbled soul, to Christ, to his restoring work. THE BOOK COVER to jump to Amazon.As you lie down to sleep, you notice your cold feet under the blankets, the taste of toothpaste in your mouth, the smell of dinner lingering in the air, the quiet of the house and the streak of moonlight beaming through a window. You feel thoughtful, grateful and pensive. Your heart turns to God, and you express your feelings of smallness and inadequacy. “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” You entrust yourself to sleep and to God who does not slumber or sleep. Another day lived, hopefully more fully alive to God and yourself, alive to the beauty and suffering in life, to all its possibilities and cries for healing.

Have you ever longed to live this way—present to life, to God, throughout an entire day? It is possible. We each desire authentic spiritual experiences with God: real, moving, transforming engagements. The trouble is that’s not how we have been taught to live our faith. Most of our teaching comes by way of sermons, books, Bible studies and other spiritual resources that instruct our thinking. Often, though, these resources miss our souls, the prime place of divine encounter. This new book takes a different tack. Its purpose, simply put, is to help more of you experience more of God. How will we accomplish that? We’re going to introduce you to spiritual practices that engage your whole person: both sides of your brain, all five senses and your body. In this way, you’ll learn how to cultivate an experiential faith—one that trains you to be attentive to a self-disclosing God who reveals himself in each daily round of beauty.


You should see a video screen, below, that you can click to watch a short video with Brent and Beth. If you do not see a video screen here, you also can jump directly to YouTube to watch the clip.


Meet J. Brent Bill and Beth Booram in our weekly author interview, which includes links to their own websites and information on how to reach them if you care to inquire about a visit or a retreat. Of course, their new book stands alone for individual reading or small-group study. AND: You can order Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God from Amazon.

Don’t Miss: Our columnist Rodney Curtis, a.k.a. The Spiritual Wanderer, is writing on this theme, too.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

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

Interview with John Eldredge on Beautiful Outlaw

A Jesus for a Dangerous World introduced the very popular evangelical author and teacher John Eldredge in opening of this two-part series about his new book Beautiful Outlaw. Jump back to our opening story to learn more about Eldredge, including: links to his Ransomed Heart website, our ReadTheSpirit overview of his new book—plus a Christmas-themed excerpt you’ll enjoy from Beautiful Outlaw. In that opening, we reported that this writer is, indeed, edgy. His fans rave about him. And, he is clearly not everyone’s cup of Christian tea. Eldredge’s critics are not limited to evangelical rivals. A longtime ReadTheSpirit colleague, veteran religion news reporter Bill Tammeus from Kansas City, took strong issue with some aspects of Beautiful Outlaw, for example.

Today, in our interview, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with John about his relationship with other evangelicals, with his critics and with the remarkably enthusiastic friends of his Ransomed Heart programs.

AND BEAUTIFUL OUTLAW ON THE COVER to jump to Amazon and order a copy.DAVID: You represent a remarkable phenomenon in evangelical publishing. Most top evangelical authors either are pastors or traditionally trained Bible scholars. You’re not a pastor. You don’t run a church. And, you’re not a trained Bible scholar like an N.T. Wright. Neither are you a journalist like Philip Yancey or many of the Guidepost writers. Nevertheless, you’ve written a whole lot of very popular books. You rack up huge numbers of Amazon raves. So, let’s start with a pretty basic question for our readers, who may be discovering you for the first time: Who are you?

JOHN: I’m 51. I live in Colorado Springs, Colorado. My wife Stasi and I have three sons.

DAVID: How do you identify yourself religiously? What’s your affiliation?

JOHN: (laughs) I don’t know how to answer that! (laughs again) Of course, I’m Christian. I probably would describe myself as an evangelical Christian. I’m Protestant. Those are probably the broadest categories I could give you in response to that question. I really think of myself more as a friend of Jesus. I don’t have denominational affiliations.

DAVID: And you’re not ordained clergyperson. You’re not a pastor, right?

JOHN: No, my graduate degree is in counseling. Professionally, I’m a writer and a speaker. I don’t pastor. I’m not a preacher. I don’t have a church that I lead. We do have an organization—Ransomed Heart—that puts on conferences and that’s our joy and our delight. Primarily, we do this in Colorado but we also do them around the world. I’d say that I’m a counselor, a writer and a speaker.


DAVID: For our readers who are just discovering you as a writer, tell us who you like to read. Who inspires you as a writer?

JOHN: Who do I read? Well, C.S. Lewis once described himself as a dinosaur. I feel a little bit like that, too. I don’t read many contemporary books. I tend to read further back in Christian history. I read the ancient desert fathers. One of my all-time favorites is the Scottish writer George MacDonald.

DAVID: Reading your books, I gather you’re a fan of all the Inklings. Do you read the lesser-known Inklings, like Charles Williams?

JOHN: Yes, of course, I love the Inklings, although Lewis clearly is my favorite. And I also love G.K. Chesterton. In his book Orthodoxy, for example, Chesterton writes that there is a unity of Christian faith that runs down through the ages, through Catholic and Protestant—and I would say also through evangelical and Pentecostal movements. A unity of the faith is there, running through all of those movements, if we know where to look for it. That was Lewis’ argument, too.

Also, like Lewis, I am trying to drive readers to a personal experience of God. Chesterton tended to argue more for a cultural and theological understanding of Jesus and Christianity. I like Lewis’ attention to the personal experience. That’s where I want to take readers.

DAVID: Clearly, you connect with readers in a big way. Just look at the tidal waves of Amazon reviews promoting your new books—that kind of personal support is amazing. How do you do that?

JOHN: Well, we have a passionate following out there, especially among people who have taken part in our Ransomed Heart programs. That’s a devoted following of people whose lives have been changed by these programs. So, when a new book is coming out, we let people know about it. We also distribute copies of the book to people who have been to our conferences and retreats and other events. Most people describe these as life-changing experiences. They return home with their hearts restored. Many people are set free from addictions or their marriages are restored. These are big changes in their lives. After that kind of experience, they think of themselves as friends who want to help others. So, it’s not surprising that when a new book comes out and we spread the word—and we spread copies of the book to many of the people who have come through Ransomed Heart—well, they respond enthusiastically.


DAVID: Now, this may sound like a strange comparison, but, as a journalist, I have covered the Burning Man festival twice, over the years, for newspapers. While Burning Man is dedicated to a completely free-form expression of one’s spirit—and your ministry is a strongly evangelical expression of Christianity—there is a similarity of organization here. You keep your core planning group small and intimate, much like the founders of Burning Man. And you don’t try to control or brand the work that you do. Like Burning Man, you encourage people to carry Ransomed Heart home with them and spin off their own local groups, right?

JOHN: That’s right. We host about six Wild at Heart events a year, for example, and men come out to camp in the mountains with us and have a four-day experience. But we decided to give away this message. Although we might do six or eight Wild at Heart events here and abroad in a year, there are hundreds of Wild at Heart events taking place all over the U.S. and around the world that we are not leading. These are local events led by people who find our message so powerful that they want to teach it to others. I’ve heard about events coming up in Colombia, Kazakhstan and other countries around the world. From Maine to Texas and from East to West in the U.S., you can find local events taking place.


DAVID: As I’ve already said, readers can jump to Amazon to read hundreds of rave reviews. But we also are linking, with this interview, to a critical review of your new book by veteran religion writer Bill Tammeus, a journalist who is well respected among his peers. And Bill is not alone in criticizing your work. You’ve been described sometimes as “too wild,” as a kind of loose cannon. And, because you’re not in the typical club of evangelical writers—in other words, you’re not a pastor or a classically trained Bible scholar—it’s easy to take issue with some of the things you write. How do you respond to all of that?

JOHN: One reason some evangelicals have trouble with my writing is that I make a big deal out of the human heart. I think the human heart is essential in what we’re trying to do. There are branches of Christianity that say the human heart is dangerous—that the human heart is a thoroughly unreliable instrument. If we awaken the heart, we’re in dangerous territory, they say. Some conservative brands of Christianity say that life is all about discipline and trying to kill our own humanity. I say: That doesn’t work at all. We don’t want to kill our humanity; we want to restore our lives by allowing Jesus to fill our lives.

DAVID: Describe this heart work a little more.

JOHN: The restoration of the human heart is absolutely essential in our lives. It’s essential for healthy relationships and spirituality. Our hearts are wounded and we need to focus on healing those wounds. We need to find the true desires of our hearts—our passions, our hopes, our fears and our dreams—and pay attention to restoring our lives based on what’s there in our hearts. My critics say that’s an objectionable thing to try to do. Awakening the heart is a problem, they say.

Another point of contention with my critics is that I really believe we need to reach a level of intimacy with God so that we’ve got a conversational relationship between the individual and God. I teach people that there can be friendship and daily conversation with God. Some folks within Christianity think that kind of intimacy and friendly conversation with God is problematic.


John Wesley Dove SerpentDAVID: Well, what you’re talking about now, I think, is right at the core of what you’re trying to express in this new book Beautiful Outlaw. The book is a quick read; it’s a dramatic read; it’s a provocative read. You’re trying to sketch in broad strokes why Jesus was such a deeply troubling figure in the world 2,000 years ago, right? And, you’re saying that getting to know Jesus today still is dangerous.

For example, one of the more provocative characteristics you emphasize in Jesus life is: cunning. That word—cunning—is intentionally jarring in your book. As I was reading that section, I thought of the church that John Wesley designed in London. All around the interior edge of the big balcony in his church, Wesley had artisans fashion a row of white-and-gold serpents and doves. A snake entwines with each of the serpents, forming a striking circular logo. But ask a church group today to describe Jesus, and I bet you won’t find anyone using this term: cunning.

JOHN: Yes, good example. Jesus is a very cunning person in the Gospels in the way he navigates his interactions with so many people. Jesus is brilliant. He’s not a Do Gooder who simply winds up dead, in the end, because he can’t help it. Jesus knows precisely when he wants to confront something or someone—and when he wants to flee. Particularly when he is in dialogue with his opponents, he has this marvelous ability to navigate potential potholes and cul de sacs. He’s stunning to watch in action. And he doesn’t just act like this and hope we’ll notice. As Wesley recognized, Jesus actually spells it out for us. Jesus tells us to be as innocent as doves and as cunning as serpents.

You’re right. Most people in most churches wouldn’t list cunning as a top quality of Jesus, but then there’s a staggering level of naiveté in contemporary Christianity. We see Jesus as a nice guy. The fact that he was so shrewd, even cunning, is forgotten. When we soften Jesus like this into a sort of simple Do Gooder, then we forget that in this world we really are in a great struggle between good and evil. We begin to think that our purpose is just to find a little good to do in life, help out some neighbors and that’s the way to live like Jesus. No, that’s not how Jesus saw the world.

What you just described about these images in Wesley’s church—now, there’s a guy who understood the sharp challenges Christians face in the world. Think of what’s happening in Burma right now. That’s the world in which we live—a very dangerous place where we have to be shrewd to navigate. Now, let me be careful to say: I’m not telling people to be cunning in an attempt to manipulate or deceive people. I’m not talking about something sinister.  Instead, I’m talking about being shrewd in this dangerous world in which we live—like Jesus taught us—in order to love, in order to do real good in the world, in order to bring redemption.


DAVID: I also should point out that we’re discussing just one point here in an entire book. So let me bring up another section of your book, one on Christmas. You actually wrote a piece online that was headlined “Baby Jesus Had Poopy Diapers.” You were pointing out—as you also do in the book—that Jesus coming into the world as an infant was a dramatic, daring, messy and potentially deadly risk. Even in Jesus’ infancy, the world was ruled by a ruthless empire and his whole family situation was not as gorgeously beautiful as Christmas cards depict.

JOHN: The classic Christmas card art, which is drawn from some of the more famous Nativity paintings of Christ, usually shows the baby Jesus as a mini-grown up. We see an adult consciousness in these images. Halos glow! His hands raise in benediction even as an infant. He’s Superbaby! And, in effect, this wipes out the Incarnation. The human realities—blood, sweat, tears and stuff like diapers—get sanitized into something beautiful for the coffee table.


DAVID: We will publish a little excerpt from that short Nativity portion of your book. But let me conclude our interview with what I’m hoping is a big-picture question. In the end, when we meet this edgy Jesus in your new book—what does this Jesus want us to do?

JOHN: That’s a great question and it’s also impossible to boil down into a single answer. But let me say a couple of things. I have to start with what’s right there in the Torah: Jesus wants us to start by loving God. And this relates to the point we’ve been discussing already. You can’t love God when God is this creepy, distant, sanitized religious cartoon. You’ve got to find a real relationship and real devotion. To love God, I tell people that we must love Christ in order to love the Father. Falling in love with God is the single most orienting thing that can happen to a human being.

After that, a lot of things begin to fall into place because, secondly, God wants us to allow His life to fill ours. A lot of Christian teachers will tell you that the goal is to imitate Jesus and, of course, that’s a classic in Christianity, the Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. I quote from his book. It’s a right concept: the Imitation of Christ. However, it’s more than just imitating, as we think about imitation today. We’ve all heard people say: Just ask yourself “What would Jesus do?” But that’s actually a crushing experience. It’s terribly disheartening because it’s impossible to live like that by sheer discipline.

Here’s what we need: We actually have to receive His life into ours. So, first, love God and, second, let His life fill ours. That’s the transforming experience. This is the power by which we overcome evil and our addictions and we restore our marriage that’s been falling apart and restore other relationships. Think about this for moment: Think about all your attempts at being kind to that obnoxious neighbor or co-worker who makes your life feel like hell. Your best attempts at restoring a relationship in that kind of situation are going to collapse quickly if you’re doing it out of a sheer feeling of discipline that you’ve got to imitate what Jesus would do. No, I’m talking in this book about something that’s a whole different orientation: I’m talking about allowing Jesus to fill your life and allow a complete restoration in your life. Try that and you’ll find so much of life beginning to fall into place.

REMEMBER: Beautiful Outlaw is available from Amazon.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Celtic writer John Philip Newell points to A New Harmony Editor of ReadTheSpirit, my own words appear in the opening pages of John Philip Newell’s new book, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul. My own praise for Newell’s book appears along with words by Barbara Brown Taylor, Richard Rohr and Matthew Fox also recommending Newell’s visionary new volume. That term “visionary” isn’t hyperbole. This book is full of the dreams and fresh ideas John Philip Newell is casting our way this year. He’s hoping we will bite, hoping we will contribute to his tantalizing hopes for a future of global unity. As usual in his books, he writes as a passionate Christian pastor and mystic to all of us: Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths—or no faith at all. In the opening pages, Matthew Fox writes: “With a book like this, religious history looks less bleak and spirituality much closer to home.”

ON WEDNESDAY, you’ll meet John Philip in our author interview.
TODAY, we’re sharing a tasty morsel from his new book.
ALSO TODAY, we’re launching a new 9/11-related prayer effort, which ReadTheSpirit discussed with John Philip in our interview. It’s called, “I Hope for a World Where …” Check out that story, as well, and add to the prayer.


The word kosmos in ancient Greek means “a harmony of parts.” In the classical world, everything in the universe was viewed as moving in relation to everything else. This ancient understanding of the cosmos is being born afresh today in radically new ways. We are realizing that the whole of reality is one. In nearly every dimension of life—whether economic or religious, scientific or political—there is a growing awareness of earth’s essential interrelatedness. This new-ancient way of seeing is radically challenging us to see ourselves as connected with everything else that exists. And it means that any true vision of reality must also be a cosmology, a way of relating the parts to the whole, of seeing our distinct journeys in relation to the one journey of the universe.

A few years ago, my wife and I went on pilgrimage to the Sinai. There were four of us—Mousa, our desert guide; Hamda, our Bedouin cook; and Ali and me. We slept under the open skies at night, and every morning before sunrise we could hear the crackling of the breakfast fire prepared by Hamda. Somehow in the barren landscape of the Sinai she would find dead roots of desert bushes for kindling in order to freshly bake us unleavened bread for breakfast. Then the great fire of the rising sun would blaze over the eastern horizon to warm our night-chilled bodies.

On the last day, we made our way to Mount Sinai, climbed half of it on camel back, then hiked the centuries-old carved steps of stone to the peak for sunset. No one else was with us on the summit as the setting sun threw its red radiance across the great range of desert peaks. We visited the three shrines of prayer that honor the disclosure of the Holy Presence in this place—one Jewish, one Christian, one Muslim—and descended the mountain in silence. The moon was fat, and its whiteness shone off the desert sand, throwing moon shadows from the high rocks and the sharp turns of our descent. At the mountain base, we approached the fourth-century St. Catherine’s Monastery where we were to spend the night. In the moonlight it looked as it might have looked at any time in its sixteen centuries. And although it held within its walls a Christian monastic community, a burning bush revered by Jewish pilgrims and a mosque prayed in by Muslims from around the world, under the moon’s light it looked as one.

… A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth and the Human Soul is written from within the Christian household. It is an attempt to serve the emerging awareness of life’s essential oneness by drawing in part on the ancient wisdom of Jesus. But it is not a book only for Christians. My desire is to communicate across the boundaries of religion and race that have separated us and to honor our distinct inheritances by serving what is deeper still—the oneness of our origins and the oneness of earth’s dstiny.”

Care to read more about John Philip Newell?

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

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

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