The Bernie S. Siegel interview on ‘The Art of Healing’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

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

Dr. Bernie Siegel stands in a rare circle of pioneers who still are guiding today’s army of spirituality-and-health advocates. So, it’s big news that Bernie’s latest book, The Art of Healing: Uncovering Your Inner Wisdom and Potential for Self-Healing is available in time for holiday shopping. If you already own some of his books, then today’s interview will underline the unique nature of this new book. Among other things: Hey, it’s fun! This new book is packed with lots of material about Bernie’s long-standing work on visualization, symbols, drawings—and good humor.

Ancient inspiration: The faith-and-health connection stretches back thousands of years to the founders of the world’s great faiths and to the physicians of ancient Greece and Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Muslim leaders were pioneers in founding hospitals. The first major Islamic hospital was established in 707 in Syria—with Christian assistance. In Europe by the later Middle Ages, Christian religious orders drew on both ancient Roman and newer Islamic ideas to establish their own hospitals. Flash forward to 18th-century America and Shakers were among the many new religious movements to connect health and religion. By the late 19th century, advocates like Seventh-day Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg were changing the way all Americans thought about food, faith and health.

A new wave of scholars: It should have come as no surprise, in the late 1970s, when famous journalist Norman Cousins dropped the first of his bombshell books about the importance of what amounted to spiritual awareness, coupled with nutrition, in combating serious medical problems. Among Cousins’ famous words of advice? Teach yourself to laugh! And, in Bernie Siegel’s new book, there’s a whole section on that discipline of humor. (Care to read more right now? Our weekly WeAreCaregivers section has an excerpt of Bernie’s chapter on laughter.)

Of course, Cousins was greeted with skepticism—and even scorn from some critics who felt the brilliant Editor of The Saturday Review had lost his mind. What those critics didn’t understand was the ancient connections under-girding Cousins’ insights—and the growing circle of spiritual pioneers among serious scientists. By the 1980s, Harvard’s Dr. Robert Coles was publishing landmark studies of the moral and spiritual lives of children, complete with interpretive drawings—much as Bernie Siegel recommends to readers in a fresh way in this new book. Soon, Dr. Larry Dossey was writing about the relationship between faith and wellness, as well. In 1986, Bernie Siegel risked his own career by publishing his most important volume, Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients.

One key distinction in this new wave of scholars—including books by Coles, Dossey and Bernie Siegel—is that these experts are not selling any specific religious creed. They’re not “faith healers.” In fact, all of them, including Bernie Siegel, warn that some religious doctrines may actually be barriers to healing.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. BERNIE SIEGEL, MD,
ON ‘THE ART OF HEALING’

DAVID CRUMM: There are a lot of faith healers out there and I want to clearly distinguish your work, for our readers, as standing in a long tradition of serious, scientifically based inquiries into the healing power of spiritual disciplines. So—before we get to the fun stuff—let’s start with your critique of some religious leaders. For example, you’re outspoken in criticizing various popes from the 1800s to today for, all too often, condemning the newest medical advances out of hand. In your view, there is too much of a conservative backlash against scientific developments—coupled with an unfortunate tendency to say that suffering is the will of God.

Dr Bernie S Siegel MD author of The Art of HealingDR. BERNIE SIEGEL: Let me use an interview with Billy Graham as an example. I remember this because his response was so striking to me. He was asked, “Does God want me to have cancer?” And Billy Graham’s first words were, “Not necessarily.”

DAVID: To be fair to Billy, he tells people that they need to take care of their bodies. He tells people that they should pray and follow a doctor’s advice—and he does both of those things himself. But your basic point is on target: Billy has strongly emphasized the importance of praying to God for healing—and he isn’t as clear as you are about the need to seek out the best in medical care.

BERNIE: Well, when Billy Graham was asked that question and the first words out of his mouth were, “Not necessarily,” I thought: That’s wrong! The answer should have been a clear, “No.” He should have said, “No, God doesn’t want you to have cancer.” In that interview, he went on to tell people that sometimes God uses disease to wake us up. And, that’s encouraging people to have that old guilt response to illness—the blame response. To me, that’s not what good religion should be telling people. We need to start by telling people that God built healing potential into everything. We need to say clearly: Disease is not a punishment.

DAVID: You’re right. There still is an over-emphasis on guilt and blame in many of the common religious responses to illness.

BERNIE: I look back to Maimonides, who gave us a lot of good advice. Here’s an example: Let’s say you go to your house of worship and, when the services are over, you walk into the parking lot—but you can’t find your car keys. Does that mean God wants you to walk home? No, most people don’t believe that. They go back and search everywhere for their keys. Well, Maimonides said the same thing about healing: “If you’ve lost your health—look for it.”

BERNIE SIEGEL: ‘MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE’

DAVID: You’ve explained that your study of religion and spirituality is not aimed at conversion or preaching—but is a part of your broad scientific inquiry into connections that can help people.

BERNIE: I always say I live by my experience, not by beliefs. I keep learning. I have studied religion to help understand the lives and the experiences of my patients. A sentence that changed my life was when a patient said to me: “I need to know how to live between office visits.” That got me started on this whole process of helping people learn how to live.

This is practical. I call this whole process: looking for common themes. If I discover something that’s helpful to a person, and then I encounter this same thing in someone else’s writings—perhaps in a novel or in the Bible or in some other writings—then I can see a larger connection. I am continually observing the world, continually reading, too. And in novels, plays, books, and images people are putting out into the world all of these things that they have observed about the world. When we can make connections in what we are observing, then we can begin to realize truths that are being spoken to us.

DAVID: When you and writers like Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey began publicizing these ideas, there were lots of detractors. Now, there’s a lot of research about the role of emotions and relationships in healing. In other words—today, you’re on what seems to be more solid ground with readers. Is that fair to say?

BERNIE: Years ago, remember, nobody thought that a support group could possibly help anyone. Now, we know that support groups truly do help people. Relationships benefit our health. Yes, there now is a lot of good research behind this. We’ve studied a lot of things that, when I started, nobody was advocating. For example, we know that, for many people, even having a dog in the house can positively affect your health.

We now have studies that show how loneliness affects genes and the control of our immune functions. So, we now know that loneliness is a factor in disease. When we begin making connections, it may not be science at that point—but we can do research over time and some of the connections we make may become science.

I talk about making the invisible visible. Years ago, Ernest Holmes wrote about this.

Here’s an example: From the Bible, we know that God speaks in dreams and images. Today, many people know that there is value in using images, including drawings and dreams, to learn more about what are bodies are saying to us. You may think that your body can’t speak to you—but it actually can speak to you when you go to bed at night and you dream. Your body can create many images for you. We know that, in this process, colors may have meaning. Images have meaning. One thing I love about this new book is that I was able to reproduce so many full-color drawings in the middle of the book. You can really see what I’m talking about in that section of the book on patients’ drawings.

BERNIE SIEGEL: DRAWINGS OF ‘INNER WISDOM’

DAVID: In your career as a pediatric surgeon, you often used techniques that I associate with Dr. Robert Coles and others—giving children a pack of crayons and asking them to draw pictures for you.

BERNIE: Drawings can reveal the truth for that person. I did a lot of children’s surgery and, yes, a child would say a lot to me through these pictures. We’ve got 70 full-color pictures in the book and I explain them. One thing I would ask a child is: Will you draw your home? Will you draw your family? One of the pictures in the book was drawn by a child with cancer. She draws this long sofa and her family is sitting there with arms wrapped around each other. We can see that there’s another space on the sofa—there’s room for the girl, but instead she’s drawn sitting on a chair, separate from her family. This child is saying, “I don’t get enough time with my family.”

I showed this drawing to her family and that made a big difference. They told me later: “Thank you for your help with that drawing, because we devoted a lot more time to her.” Using drawings often let me get in touch with inner wisdom. We have an intuitive, unconscious awareness of what we need, but often we’re not able to express it. This girl’s drawing told her family something very important about their relationship.

BERNIE SIEGEL: ‘LAUGH OUT LOUD’

DAVID: You’ve got a whole section of your book called Laugh Out Loud. I think it’s one of the best portions of the book—in fact, it’s a good reason to buy this new book even if you’ve got other Bernie Siegel books already on the shelf. I really like the way you explain the importance of laughter and good humor in general. And, you point out that this isn’t just a matter of good intentions—this really can lead to improved health.

BERNIE: This is not beyond science. There is chemistry behind what happens within a person during laughter. When people are battling a disease, laughter helps.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines from that chapter in which you salute Norman Cousins: “In Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, Norman Cousins wrote a fascinating account of his self-induced healing-by-laughter from a diagnosed condition, ankylosing spondylitis. When his doctor gave him a 1-in-500 chance of recovery, Cousins checked himself into a hotel, watched Candid Camera tapes, and laughed, day after day. Choosing to use humor as his medicine, rather than react to his fear and do nothing, is the sign of an optimist—a survivor.”

BERNIE: I have made laughter a part of my therapy as a doctor for a long time. Imagine doing surgery on children every week, which was my specialty. I found that laughter was very distracting. When you laugh, you can’t be afraid. I did this in lots of ways. I would play nursery rhymes in the operating room and the whole room would relax because everybody in the room would regress as we listened.

DAVID: This kind of pioneering work you have pursued for so many years—it took a lot of courage. You and Norman Cousins and Larry Dossey—everyone in this field—weathered a lot of criticism along the way. But it’s a basic part of your own spiritual orientation that pushes you onward, right?

BERNIE: Here’s a workshop question I’ve used through the years: I ask people, “If you could be God for a day, why would you want to be God?” And some people will say: So I can do this. Or, so I can fix that. But the ultimate response? The best answer to my workshop question? It’s when people say: “So I can understand: Why?” That’s the ultimate question we need to keep asking: “Why?” That comes from the Baal Shem Tov and many other great spiritual teachers. We are here to live and learn—to keep asking: “Why?”

I just keep working with people and learning—and that’s why I like the word “potential.” We mentioned Ernest Holmes before and this comes through in his writing, as well. He asked the question in The Science of Mind: “What if Jesus was the only normal person who ever lived?” Of course, Holmes had to be smiling when he wrote that. He was writing about potential. We need to be helping people to reach their potential. We know that, when we give the human body the message that we really do want to live—that we want to restore injury and live—the results are amazing.

It’s so important to remember: When you’ve lost your health—keep looking for it.

Care to read more?

In our WeAreCaregivers section, this week, we’ve got a short excerpt from Bernie Siegel’s chapter ‘Laugh Out Loud.’ You’re sure to enjoy it!

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

The Sacred Art of Hospitality interview with Nanette Sawyer

Click the cover to visit its home page at SkyLight Paths.

Click the cover to visit its home page at SkyLight Paths.

Hospitality is all the rage in communities coast to coast this year, in part because we are approaching the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s declaration of a national Thanksgiving. But what is hospitality? Emily Post? Serving tea? A suite at a convention with mixed drinks? Where do we turn to rediscover the spiritual core of hospitality?

Google is no help! Type in “hospitality and church” and you’ll get more than 35 million responses!

Today, we’re proud to introduce the Rev. Nanette Sawyer and her book: Hospitality—The Sacred Art—Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome. Our good friends Fred and Maryanne Brussat at the Spirituality & Practice website have reviewed Nanette’s book, calling it “excellent” and providing a quick summary of the book that we will share with you here:

The Rev. Nanette Sawyer is founding pastor of Grace Commons, an innovative Christian community in Chicago that holds hospitality as a core value. An ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church (USA) … Sawyer sees the spiritual practice of hospitality as sending out circles of meaning and connection in our lives. Its three main qualities are receptivity (opening the door to God), reverence (entering the space of love between us), and generosity (giving the gifts that we have received).” You may enjoy reading the Brussats’ entire review or an excerpt of the book that the Brussats published at their website.

As you can tell already, this is not an Emily Post guide to etiquette. At the same time, it is a very practical book. The chapters have titles such as “Hospitality to Neighbors: Becoming the Merciful Neighbor” and “Hospitality to Enemies: Extending Generosity through Non-Retaliation.” In each section, Nanette divides up her material with easy-to-follow sub-heads and lists of helpful bullet points. She explains step by step how readers can explore all of these forms of hospitality. It’s a great choice for small-group discussion in your congregation.

However, we also want to be clear: This isn’t a cookbook guaranteeing church growth as an outcome. This book is—as SkyLight Paths so appropriately has labeled the book—about learning the “Art of Spiritual Living.” This process makes for a better life—and a better world and, if you follow these practices, a much healthier congregation and community. In the course of Nanette’s book, you’ll find ideas that parallel our own Read The Spirit Founding Principles.

At one point, Nanette describes the value this way: “Through this practice of hospitality to ideas and the people who hold them, I have been opened and inspired, nurtured and reassured of the deep relationality that is life. I hope that my learnings can shine a light on your path as well.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
THE REV. NANETTE SAWYER ON
“HOSPITALITY—THE SACRED ART”

Nanette Sawyer

Nanette Sawyer

READ THE SPIRIT EDITOR DAVID CRUMM: As I travel around the country, I meet countless people talking about “hospitality.” Kindness is a central part of our American character—but, most of us are ashamed that our country now seems so divided and so—well, so flat-out rude. I’m going to urge readers to buy your book to discover a much broader understanding of what hospitality means—where it begins and how far it extends.  I’m also going to tell readers that you aren’t Emily Post. So, give us a big picture of hospitality: What is it?

THE REV. NANETTE SAWYER: I have often thought of my book about hospitality as a book about love. It’s about learning how we can become people capable of love. I’m asking: How do we learn to love like this? How do we show love? How do we use love? Think about love as a tool that we can learn to use more effectively and we begin to appreciate how incredibly empowering and transformative this can be.

DAVID: I like that! One way to explain the big picture of hospitality is to define it as an expression of “love.” You’re teaching people that hospitality really springs for a deep authenticity—as deep as love itself, right?

NANETTE: Absolutely. And if we hope to be hospitable in an authentic way, then we have to take risks and learn to see both ourselves and others in new ways.

In his declaration of a national Thanksgiving 150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln told the nation that we must be honest about our own failures and limitations. He wanted Americans to see these truths. Yet, he wanted Americans to understand that we still are precious and we can heal from our wounds. That’s another important part of this process. Hospitality calls us to be better people.

DAVID: You’re touching on forgiveness here—giving up the angry knots of hurt we feel toward people we believe are our enemies. One way “forgiveness” is described is that we consciously give up our desire for vengeance for past wrongs. We let go of the fear and the anger we’ve nursed since the original offense.

NANETTE: That’s right. Now, we need to say that forgiveness is not permission to simply let people go on acting harmfully. But forgiveness is closely related to hope. Forgiveness says that we are placing our hope in this new kind of hospitality we are developing. Forgiveness is a big process. We have to learn to forgive ourselves. We have to let God forgive us. This is all part of becoming better people capable of love and capable of hospitality.

A SHARED COMMUNITY:
“MINE” DESCRIBES ONLY—ISOLATION

DAVID: My wife and I are helping to clean out the home of my elderly parents, who now live in a smaller apartment. Our whole family has been involved in this process for months now. It’s a big task. But one thing people learn in cleaning out a person’s former homestead is that we certainly can’t hold onto the things we accumulate forever. It’s an ancient truth in all the world’s religions: These things we seem to “own” in life are not really “ours.” And, it seems to me, that’s a part of what you’re trying to get readers to see about hospitality.

NANETTE: That’s part of this bigger vision I’m encouraging. As people talk about things being “mine” or even “our own”—they are describing only their own isolation. As you say, we don’t really “own” what we have in a permanent way. My book is about building a shared community. I’m calling people to open ourselves up to a bigger reality. It’s about sharing everything that we have and everything we think we own.

DAVID: Let’s take this down to a practical level. The fact is that most people in congregations coast to coast don’t know much about the other people in their own congregation. On most residential streets across America, neighbors don’t know each other anymore. If some of the things we’ve said so far in this interview seem a bit abstract—your practical advice in the book starts with very tangible steps. You advise readers to: Spend more intentional time with your family. Meet your neighbors. Learn about the other people in your congregation.

NANETTE: Right.  If we’re going to welcome neighbors, we have to start by knowing who lives nearby. We ultimately need to be aware of the whole planet, but we can start with becoming aware of the people who live with us on our street, in our neighborhood, in our town. Maybe the people on your street are all like you—but maybe not. It takes a great deal of courage to go out and meet the people living nearby. We need to practice an awareness of what’s happening around us in our neighborhoods.

I also talk to readers about practicing hospitality in your family. And I encourage people to learn about each other in congregations, as well. In many congregations, these days, there is a real hesitancy to invite other congregants over to your home for dinner. I want to encourage people to start thinking and talking about why that isolation is so common today. What is it inside of us that makes it hard for us to open our homes? Is it because we’re afraid of what we might learn about them—or what they might learn about us?

REDISCOVERING THE JOY OF CONVERSATION

DAVID: After 40 years of interviewing people around the world, I love conversation. But this really is a skill that most people haven’t mastered, today. In fact, as we move more toward digital interaction with the world, the ability to start a good conversation with another person really takes some practice. Of course, the best conversationalists are those people who are genuinely interested in the person they’re meeting—so interested that they spend as much time asking questions as they do talking about themselves.

One thing that sold me on the value of your book was the practical pages you provide in the heart of the book about the practice of conversation. You provide several good discussion starters—classic questions that good conversationalists often use. Tell us about that.

NANETTE: I write about something as basic as conversation because most people don’t regularly experience intentional conversation.

DAVID: You write, “Intentional conversation has this effect of creating a free and open space between the people conversing. It is the space of encounter in which we are deeply attentive to each other. In this space, we foster our curiosity about each other and express that curiosity in the form of an invitation to know each other better.”

NANETTE: Most people tend to go for easy topics in conversation—like the weather. And that’s not bad. We’re culturally conditioned to do that and the weather can be fine as a starting point. But, you want to find out more about what’s important to this person you’re meeting. We really want to get to know people, so how do we move from passive comments on the weather—to finding out about the other person. You can ask: What do you do for fun? Or ask about the person’s hobbies. It’s simple. Just ask: What are your hobbies? Or ask: What’s been on your mind lately? That’s a nice open question that invites a person to take their answer in a number of directions.

If you ask questions in this more open-ended way, you’re likely to discover new things that never would have occurred to you. If you risk this kind of conversation—if you risk learning about the people around you in this way, then we all will feel more connected and less isolated.

THE ARTS: A DIFFERENT WAY OF ENGAGING

Click this image by Nanette Sawyer to see the whole array of Stations of the Cross artworks.

Click this image by Nanette Sawyer to see the whole array of Grace Commons Stations of the Cross, plus explanations of the artwork.

DAVID: You recommend many ways to interact with people—conversation is just one of the essential steps. In your own life, you’ve been experimenting for years with creating collaborative artworks as a way to build community.

I’m going to provide a link so readers can take a look at one of your online installations, based on a large-scale collage project you did a year or so ago. You took the centuries-old format of Stations of the Cross and you invited lots of people to help you create contemporary stations. (Here is the link to Stations of the Cross: Pray with Grace Commons, built around immigration themes.) I’m in awe of what you achieved here! It’s one thing to recommend your book. But, it really underlines the value of your book when people can see how powerfully you’ve spread this message. Just look at your Grace Commons Stations of the Cross. To create this big installation, you produced some of this art yourself. The members of your congregation and community produced some. And then—you created a hospitable place where other artists and other congregations also created artworks. Finally, you brought them all together.

I think this really is a tangible sign of the power behind your ideas.

NANETTE: I’ve become an artist through my work with Grace Commons. We intentionally did a lot of work with the arts in ministry because we wanted people to tap into different ways of engaging in spiritual life. We did an arts workshop on what we called Mapping Forgiveness. We started a project called Art Space in which people would actually do art in what we consider a worship time. One project was to make an all-original stations of the cross, so we tried that in 2007. There were some artists in the community who agreed to create one or two stations. Then, we created other stations as collaborative art projects involving a lot of people.

That went so well in 2007 that we created this later Stations of the Cross on immigration themes that you’re going to link to online. If you look at the art we produced in that second stations project, you will see a lot of collages among the pieces. That’s because I needed to develop a way of doing art that would convey meaning and yet also could be done in a community setting. With collages, everyone can tear paper and paste it.

DAVID: Clearly, you’ve got lots of talents in teaching and talking with people. So, here’s the last question: If you had a chance to talk with readers as they finish reading your book, what would you tell them?

NANETTE: I would say: I hope you feel affirmed in your preciousness. I hope you feel affirmed in seeing that you are precious and loved by God. I hope that you are encouraged not only to accept that love deeper in your own life—but that you also want to share love with the people you encounter each day—and then with our larger planet.

MORE ABOUT NANETTE SAWYER

The Rev. Nanette Sawyer is a pastor, artist, teacher and spiritual counselor who understands that hospitality has the power to heal. The author of Hospitality—The Sacred Art, Nanette teaches about a soul-deep hospitality that is nothing short of transformative. For years, she has been involved in interfaith work both locally and nationally. As an author, she writes as a Christian who is committed to what she describes as “reclaiming the historically dynamic nature of Christianity, as well as its roots in hospitality and generosity.”

Raised in a conservative Christian church, Nanette renounced the faith in her pre-teen years and spent more than a decade finding her way to a Christian faith that made sense and was rooted in grace and love. She recalls that it was the hospitality of generous teachers and practitioners that led her to this new experience of Christianity as a positive force in her life and in the world. Nanette began her working life with a two-year stint as a repair seamstress after getting out of college. Next, she directed a Women’s Resource Center at a small liberal arts college in Amherst, Massachusetts, for eight years before heading to Harvard Divinity School to study Comparative World Religions and to obtain a Masters of Theological Studies. After Harvard, Nanette worked at the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalists in Boston for two years, and then headed to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago to get her Masters of Divinity degree. In 2002 she was ordained as a Presbyterian minister and was one of the first women to found an emergent style church.

Supported by the Presbytery of Chicago, Nanette launched an experimental “church without walls,” now called “Grace Commons” (originally Wicker Park Grace) in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago. Since November 2012 she also pastors a small, progressive church, St. James Presbyterian Church, which is currently the host of the Grace Commons community. In addition to her book on Hospitality, she has chapters and articles in a number of books and magazines. A sought after speaker, you can learn much more about her life and work by visiting her main blog: A Transformed Faith at www.NanetteSawyer.com

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

A Blessing for your marriage (and how we made it 50 years)

The late poet Seamus Heaney wrote that his parents’ solid marriage was built upon “a love that’s proved by steady gazing, not at each other, but in the same direction.” (Read more about Heaney’s life and work here.) These days, millions of Americans are wondering what defines a marriage—and what makes good marriages work. Popular author and columnist Benjamin Pratt has spent a long time consulting with his wife Judith Pratt on what they have learned in their half century. And—don’t miss the blessing Benjamin offers at the conclusion of this column!

Love Is What You Go Through With Someone

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Benjamin and Judith Pratt on our Day 1.

Benjamin and Judith Pratt on our Day 1.

Judith and I are in our 12th marriage.

To be a little more precise, we can demarcate 12 different movements to our 50-year marital dance. Each dance has been different with some, like the tango, filled with passion, and others gentle and orderly like the waltz. Oh yes, we’ve had turns of rock and roll, herky-jerky and the energetic swing—and even the crawl as our world slowed down.

Each marriage corresponds to major life transitions: being newlyweds, the birth of children, personal times of growth and struggle, new professions, deaths of parents, children moving away from the nest, aging, and, of course, illness and the tasks of caregiving. Each transition involved the basic marital functions of love, sex, children, careers, families, companionship and house-holding. And, each turn in the dance was dynamic, daunting and demanding.

We never claimed to be masters of the dance. We are always learning.

THE SHY MEETING

Fifty-four years ago, I met Judith.

As a very shy teenager who had dated very little, I remember our first encounter. An electric jolt went through my body and stunned me to silence. I translated the jolt as a confirmation that I had met the girl of my dreams.

It was nearly four months until we had our first date. I told you I was shy! Our first date was a part of my fraternity initiation process: I had to ask someone I had never dated to a dance. The horror of the evening was that I had not slept for 36 hours, was wearing a scratchy burlap bag under my shirt and tie, had just eaten 4 cloves of garlic and had a heavy dose of lilac tonic rubbed into my hair. Wasn’t I appealing?

My assignment that night: I was to return to the dorm with lipstick on my lips. On the way home, I asked her to paint my lips. She later confessed that she really wanted to kiss me. My interpretation of the jolt was confirmed.

PRIDE COMES BEFORE A FALL

Electricity has flowed in our relationship. Most often it has been positive but sometimes quite negative. The closest our marriage came to failing was during the tenth year. I was the founding pastor of the fastest growing church in Northern Virginia. Folks were fueling my foolish pride by predicting I would become a bishop. I averaged working 70-80 hours a week. I was so absorbed in my work that I was absent to my wife even when I was at home.

I had become full of myself!

NEWSPAPER COVERAGE OF MY HUMBLING: The headline read “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and the brief story explained, in part: “Two broken arms fail to keep the Rev. Benjamin Pratt of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church from his duties as he chats with parishioners. The injuries occurred during a football game with the men and boys of the church at the picnic on Sept. 10. Pratt was tripped while catching a pass and tried to break the fall by landing in push-up fashion. Until the casts come off, movement is limited to the shoulders and simple hand functions.

NEWSPAPER COVERAGE OF MY HUMBLING: The headline read “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and the brief story explained, in part: “Two broken arms fail to keep the Rev. Benjamin Pratt of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church from his duties as he chats with parishioners. The injuries occurred during a football game with the men and boys of the church at the picnic on Sept. 10. Pratt was tripped while catching a pass and tried to break the fall by landing in push-up fashion. Until the casts come off, movement is limited to the shoulders and simple hand functions.”

Without rain, Virginia red clay becomes like concrete. There had been a six-week drought that summer. In September, our church gathered at a sun-baked park for fun, games and a picnic. I joined in a touch football game. I was running full speed to catch a pass when I tripped over a young boy’s foot.

I plunged toward the clay concrete, reaching out both arms to break the fall. The fall broke the radial heads in both of my elbows. For six weeks I was in two casts.

I instantly became like a dependent infant, except for being able to thrill my daughters by mimicking the Cookie Monster. I could lift the lid off the cookie jar on top of the refrigerator and extract a cookie, placing it on the edge. “Gulp! Coooookie Monster!” Fun. But, not a basic survival skill.

Truth be told, I could do nothing to care for myself. I could not dress, feed, or clean myself in any way. One parishioner drew a cartoon of me exiting a Men’s Room with my head turned back to say, “Thanks.” So, I turned to Judith for care. Considering the emotional-and-relational canyon between us at that point, it was not easy to close our intimacy gap. I had ignored her, so it made sense that she was not eager to care for me in my dependency. On more than one occasion she has confessed that she was tempted to cut more deeply while shaving my neck.

Slowly, but surely, the painful, humbling fall led us to tears, confessions, forgiveness and a new, much deeper love and commitment. I came to believe that it was God’s foot that tripped me and brought me down.

It was God who affirmed that love is what you go through with someone.

50 YEARS OF ATTEMPTED HUMOR
—AND REAL COMPASSION

Occasionally, someone asks, “What is the key to making a marriage last for 50 years?”

I usually test their sincerity with a few dark quips: “Good Scotch;” “I always surrender;” “Long walks, very long walks;” or “Marriage is the commitment to share the same bedroom in which the temperature is never right.”

But, if I sense that the question is a serious inquiry, I will speak more openly and thoughtfully. I might open by saying that humor, which I just attempted, is basic to success. Not only humor that makes us laugh together, but the deeper understanding of humor helping us prevail against our fears and not letting us take ourselves too seriously.

Love is what you live through with someone. Marriage holds us together during our intimacy gaps. Marriage is the best alternative to aloneness and loneliness. Sustaining a good relationship means really being there for the other, being alert and hospitably present. It means listening to the other, not just with our ears but with our heart. It means responding to what we hear with compassionate action. It is soul engaging, emotionally and mentally energizing. It is the stuff of committed friendship. It is the dance of love, the stuff of life in communion and community. It’s common sense—and especially common decency.

We trust the old adage that marital partners are adversaries. There are some fundamental differences in each of us that will always impact our relationship. They are basic to who we are, why we risked marriage—and how we bless and irritate each other. These differences could have been the source of perennial warfare. But we chose to make them the creative irritants that spur on-going growth in each of us. Judith and I have chosen to understand that our differences are the grains of sand that irritate our oyster to develop and create a more beautiful pearl in the heart of each of us. We are not the same persons we were 50 years ago. We are better, wiser, more caring and creative persons because of each other.

We are in the 50th year of our marital dance because we are deeply respectful, grateful and tender toward each other. We believe in and trust each other. We, like all couples, have been critical, even contemptuous, of the other. But those times were short-lived and minor compared to the warm, affectionate, openness that has prevailed in our mutual dance.

Without hesitation, I can say that I have been a better marital partner because I daily pray the Discipleship Prayer, attributed to St. Francis. In it is the admonition to “seek not so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” This act alone orients any relationship in a positive direction.

SHARING ‘A BLESSING OF THE SENSES’

Starting our second half century.

Starting our second half century.

When I conduct weddings, these days, I no longer deliver a homily. Instead, I share a Blessing of the Senses. Each time I speak the blessing it is personally crafted to include feigned touching of the couple’s eyes, ears, lips, hands and heart. I think it summarizes the ingredients necessary for a sustained, thriving marriage.

Here is one version of that blessing:

May God so bless your Eyes that you will see, not who you want to see, but truly see your partner for his/her gifts and graces, warts and wounds. May you celebrate with gratitude the gifts and joys, and understand and console the wounds and warts.

May God bless your Ears that you may not only listen but truly hear the voice, words, yearnings, needs and hopes of your partner.

May God so bless your Lips that your kisses shall be sweet and tender. And may the words crossing your lips be ones of honesty, hope, forgiveness—along with laughter. May your lips be guardians that halt words of hatred, vicious criticism and contempt.

May God bless your Hands to be instruments of comfort, strength and tenderness for the other.

May God bless your Heart that you may be a presence of comfort, joy, hope, forgiveness and vitality to your partner as well as others. May your Hearts be so filled with love that you will be instruments of peace to all.

Love each other as you have been loved.
Care for each other.
Bear one another’s burdens; share each other’s joys.
And, bring each other home.

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Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media

The following column was reported by Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm and nationally known church consultant Martin Davis. To read Martin Davis’s earlier columns in Read The Spirit, start with his recent columns on the challenges of change and on why your church newsletter may shock you.

TWO HEADLINES compelled us to help readers sort fact from fiction concerning the popular myth that church growth depends on widespread use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the like). While Facebook, in particular, is a very valuable way to let church members share the richness of congregational life—the myth of explosive growth is perpetuated, we both agree, by a new report in the online Christian Post, headlined: Top 5 Churches That Use Social Media Best. Some truths, we think, come from a second new headline out of the Pew Research Center. Here is our report …

3 SOCIAL MEDIA MYTHS BUZZING IN CONGREGATIONS:

Twenty something social networking on his laptopMARTIN DAVIS WRITES: There were no surprises in the Christian Post list. The winners were Mars Hill Seattle, Oklahoma-based Life Church, Tennessee’s Cross Point, Gateway Church in Texas and San Antonio’s Community Bible Church—five leading mega-churches with massive audiences, bulging budgets, and staff members dedicated to social media. “When it comes to churches,” begins the Christian Post article, “having at least a minimal digital strategy has become crucial in expanding Christian outreach even locally within their own communities.”

Here are three myths that I think the Christian Post article may fuel:

MYTH: Social media is the key to congregational growth. The view that social media is essential to growth is intoxicating, and wrong. Megachurches—if that’s the type of community you’re trying to cultivate—were around long before Facebook hit the scene. Social media in megachurches is more a reflection of the population served than a distinguishing trait.

MYTH: The purpose of social media is to produce growth. Here’s the real problem. By tying social media to growth, Christian Post overlooks the more important point: Electronic communications (e-mail, e-newsletters, etc) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) are first and foremost about communicating, not growth. As with any form of communication, executed properly, growth may be an outcome. But growth is not an indication of success.

MYTH: Effective social media requires top professionals. Most leaders of small to mid-sized congregations—at least occasionally—cast longing glances at the huge staff rosters of megachurches. The five models held up by Christian Post suggest that experts are central for social media success. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Yes, communicating through social media requires our adjusting to these media; and, good advice and guidance helps. If you are a poor communicator in person, or have difficulty writing coherent thoughts, social media will only compound your difficulties. People who communicate effectively will amplify their voices through these tools. All good writers know that an editor helps. All great public speakers can name their teachers and mentors. Professional advice helps. Occasional training helps a lot. In fact, I regularly consult with congregations on smart ways to use websites, newsletters and social media.

But congregations do not need to go out and hire top guns to run their websites, newsletters and social media. In fact, doing so can often hamstring congregations with a distant webmaster who can’t communicate as immediately or as effectively as the people already leading the congregation.

3 SOCIAL MEDIA TRUTHS TO PROMOTE:

Four hands claspingDAVID CRUMM WRITES: This week, Joanna Brenner and Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center are releasing an update on social media tracking that is causing another flurry of news stories. You can read their entire report via the Pew site. In fact, their latest headline—72% of Online Adults are Social Networking Site Users—may fuel assumptions that social media is a life-and-death issues for congregations. But, read the whole report. When I completed it, I found: Martin Davis is right.

Here are three truths—highlights from the latest Pew report, and the past year or so of Pew social-media tracking:

TRUTH: Twitter is a trap for congregations. Want to leave your congregation in the dust? Announce that, henceforth, you’ll mainly be Tweeting the latest congregational news. That seems like a reasonable move, doesn’t it? Every prime-time television show seems to be promoting Twitter hash tags these days. But, look at the data. Pew reports that Twitter usage is growing but has only reached 18 percent of the online population. Mostly, these Tweeters are aged 18 to 29—not the main demographic in most congregations. (It’s important to note that the ’72 percent’ and other percentages cited in Pew’s new report are based on people who already are Internet users. That group is huge, but it’s still only 85 percent of all Americans. That means each percentage cited in the Pew study actually is a smaller portion of the population as a whole.)

You may be aiming at young adults. You may think that Tweeting is an ideal way to attract 20-somethings, but people outside your community are not likely to see your Tweets among the zillions of 140-character messages flooding Twitter every day. And here’s the Achilles Heel for most congregations: Among 50-to-64-year-old adults—the life’s blood of most congregations—Twitter users comprise only 13 percent of people who already are online. Considering the population as a whole, that means you’ll be leaving nearly 9 out of 10 of your members aged 50 to 64 in the dust with your Tweets. The problem of heavily focusing on Twitter is even worse among 65-plus men and women. Only 5 percent of online users in that age range ever touch Twitter. For that big portion of your community, you can Tweet like crazy—but 65-plus folks will perceive that you’ve suddenly fallen silent.

TRUTH: By itself, social media is not a true open door to the community. These days, “Open Doors” is a mantra echoing in congregations coast to coast. By the thousands, church leaders have updated their signs and newsletters to de-emphasize denominational divisions and stress their wide-open civic appeal. Social media may seem to reach broadly across the entire community. In fact, among 20-somethings, virtually everyone uses some form of social media. The use of social media also is rapidly rising among men and women 65 and older. But—even with all of that growth—Pew reports that social media use by Americans 65 and older still has not reached the 50 percent mark among online Americans. Do you really want to leave half of your seniors behind by putting too much emphasis on social media?

TRUTH: We should dive into social media, and—right now—we should be swimming in the Facebook pool. Don’t misunderstand today’s column! Martin Davis and Read The Spirit both strongly encourage vigorous use of social media! The vast majority of Americans use some form of social media every day. If Anthony Trollope or Susan Sontag were still alive and writing, they would wryly describe social media with their now-classic phrase: It’s become The Way We Live Now. We must dive in!

But, drawing upon the past year’s findings from Pew researchers, this pattern is clear: Facebook is, for the moment, the closest thing we have to a new public square. Here’s a widely reported Pew conclusion: “People who use Facebook have more close friends, get more social support and report being more politically engaged than those who don’t.”

Facebook social patterns make a lot of sense—just use your own common sense. As in most public squares, Facebook has its gregarious communicators and greeters—and, Facebook also has its avid followers. In fact, as Pew reported last year, “Facebook users get more than they give.” What does that mean? Think about your own congregation. Some folks enjoy standing around after a service, greeting friends and making people feel welcome. Others enjoy taking part in this experience—but don’t initiate it. They look to a smaller handful of extroverted members to get things rolling. The same is true on Facebook. Pew found, for example: “only 40% of Facebook users in our sample made a friend request, but 63% received at least one request.”

The social principles you already know so well in your community have moved into the heart of Facebook. Rather than rushing out to buy the services of a high-priced media professional, you’ll do far better by identifying men and women who enjoy extending greetings in your building—then encouraging them to extend greetings on behalf of the congregation, day by day, on Facebook.

Beyond “friending” and sharing greetings, what else do Facebook users love? Sharing photos. In your own congregation, what do members enjoy when they have time to sit and chat with friends? Sharing photos. Do you have members in your congregation who avidly snap photos? Why not share them on your church’s website so men and women can easily find photos of congregational life—and share them further via Facebook.

This isn’t arcane science. These are the social principles you know so well in your community—moving online.

CONCLUSION

FROM MARTIN DAVIS and DAVID CRUMM: Much of our communication with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors already is digital. It’s The Way We Live Now. Facebook use dwarfs the readership of all congregational bulletins and newsletters put together. Do you feel pulled in too many directions? Want to skip Tweeting your congregation’s news? Go ahead!

But the basics of congregational life—the truly timeless spiritual treasures within our faith communities—remain the same. The majority of Americans seek God’s love in community with similarly inspired men and women and, then, we feel moved to share these experiences with others.

And, that’s … Well, from both of us: That’s the truth.

Want more?

Want Martin to help you? That’s easy! Visit the website for his courses and consulting: Sacred Language Communications. You can contact Martin Davis via this page within his website. Martin plans to regularly publish helpful columns in Read The Spirit through the autumn and winter.

Agree with our analysis? Then, take action on what you’ve just learned: Please, share this column with friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

The Tom Stella Interview: ‘Finding God Beyond Religion’

'LOSING MY RELIGION': To see R.E.M.'s hit music video—and to discuss these issues, click on this image to visit the OurValues column today.

‘LOSING MY RELIGION’: To see R.E.M.’s hit music video—and to discuss these issues, click on this image to visit the OurValues column today.

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

Cover Tom Stella Finding God Beyond Religion

Click the cover to visit the publisher’s page for Tom Stella’s book, ‘Finding God Beyond Religion.’

So begins the Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg’s Foreword to Tom Stella’s book: Finding God Beyond Religion. Drawing on this poem by Amichai, Borg explains, “Tom Stella has been moved, shaped, liberated by ‘doubts and loves’.”

A Christian author who champions doubt? Here’s why Borg’s insight is so important: Millions of men and women are coming to appreciate the value of doubt in their spiritual lives. Of course, some religious traditions value doubt more than others. The full spectrum of Judaism, for example, runs from ultra-orthodox through secular humanist congregations—Jews who believe that the entity we have traditionally called “God” is really the enlightened spirit of humanity. In Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama regularly explains, the traditional Western concept of God is irrelevant to the Buddhist search for compassion and enlightenment. Sufis and other mystics value doubt.

To clarify his message, Tom Stella is not an atheist. In fact, you’ll find in today’s interview with Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm that Tom considers himself a Christian. But, he also describes his concept of God, now, as a powerful sense of a Spirit within the world and within all of us. He says his theology is much like that of retired Bishop John Spong, who we also interviewed recently. Stella’s opening lines in this book quote the Muslim-Sufi mystic Rumi inviting “us to leave behind the narrow notion of religion understood as moral teachings and to enter the field where spiritual seekers gather.” That “field” does not try to impose traditional doctrines, Stella explains.

Many religious writers scoff at people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But, Tom Stella is a stalwart friend of such seekers. He has become a spiritual counselor to the Nones—the growing minority of Americans who decline to give pollsters a religious affiliation and, instead, respond: “None.” Read The Spirit earlier took a close look at the Rise of the Nones. Sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, creator of the Our Values project, also has reported on the Nones.

For much of his adult life, Tom Stella served as a Catholic priest. Now, he has left his religious order. As you can learn from Tom’s homepage, he is a spiritual director, counselor, hospice chaplain and author. He has become a sage of the Rockies—a wise teacher drawing from West and East to help men and women from his home base in Colorado Springs.

Highlights of Our Interview with
Tom Stella on ‘Finding God Beyond Religion’

DAVID CRUMM: You don’t like that label—”Nones.” Instead, you use a phrase that I like, too: “unorthodox believers.” Explain what you mean by that.

Tom Stella Colorado based spiritual director and authorTOM STELLA: These are people who are not being fed by the traditional church. Yet, some of the healthiest religious people I know are unorthodox believers. They wouldn’t call themselves “religious” necessarily. Many of the unorthodox believers I have encountered do believe that there is a communion with the divinity, although they are likely to see this divinity as a communion with the spirit of humanity. The term “unorthodox believer” covers a lot of ground—it’s a big umbrella. I’m saying in this book that it’s important for traditional religious groups not to just write off these folks as heretics or atheists. These folks are spiritually hungry. They’re grappling with—and many of them longing for—ways to relate to the larger community.

DAVID: There’s an unfortunate stereotype floating around that “spiritual seekers” are somehow self-centered dilettantes. They’re too soft for real religion and prefer selfish feel-good experiences. That’s essentially what Rabbi David Wolpe said in TIME magazine this spring. We just discussed the Wolpe commentary in a recent interview with Ram Dass. In sharp contrast, you say that the spiritual-but-not-religious path takes a great deal of courage. Some folks may, indeed, be using that line to avoid the whole subject. But for many people, you’re saying, this phrase describes taking a courageous dive into the deep end of the religious pool, right?

TOM: Our culture has developed a very cynical take on these folks. People discount them by describing them as just wanting fuzzy, self-centered stuff. That’s an unfair stereotype. In my experience, folks who’ve chosen to walk this path want a faith that has integrity. Now, we don’t want to stereotype traditionally religious people, either. But I can say this: It’s easier in our culture to go the traditional route of membership and practice than it is to walk the spiritual pathway.

Jack Spong says that people go to religion for safety, not for truth. I think it’s very courageous for people to walk outside of the traditional, institutional paths. People who choose this path can find themselves separated from members of their own family, as relatives learn what traditional beliefs they may have left behind. In the last chapter of my book, I write about so-called “Cafeteria Catholics,” a stereotype of Catholics who like to choose which beliefs they will follow. The institutional Catholic Church wants to write them off. I say: No, these people are trying to work out what they can claim with integrity. I think Jesus was probably regarded as a Cafeteria Jew in his day, which is why he encountered so much friction from the religious officials of his day.

TOM STELLA: ‘This can blow up old assumptions’

DAVID: At Read The Spirit, we have published a number of interviews with Bible scholar Marcus Borg—the husband of Marianne Borg, who wrote your Foreword—and Marcus often talks about this problem of conflict within organized religion over what people truly believe, and things the denominations tell them to believe. You’re a fan of Spong’s writing, too, and Spong frequently talks about this problem: Many organized religious groups insist on doctrines that millions have a hard time believing. In your research for this book, what would you say are some of the toughest barriers to belief today?

TOM: Doctrines about Jesus are a barrier, which Marcus also addresses in his books. I’m talking about what we could call High Christology—Jesus descended from above, born of a virgin, died for our sins, and so on. Today, a lot of people who want to have a life of faith say, “I can’t go there anymore.” They may say, “I once reveled in those traditional beliefs, but I just can’t believe that way anymore.” I’m talking about those teachings that give us a dualistic sense of life—that there is this world and then God is somewhere else. God is this anthropomorphic Father, a Guy in the Sky who sometimes decides to intervene. For a lot of people, that notion just doesn’t make sense anymore. When people describe this problem to me, they’ll say: “My life experience tells me this isn’t so.” A lot of people have prayed for someone to recover from a life-threatening illness—for the Guy in the Sky to step in and change the world with a miracle. When that doesn’t happen, this can blow up old assumptions about faith.

DAVID: So, are you an atheist? Turning to Wikipedia, the term “atheist” means “the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.” Is that you?

TOM: You might say that I am non-theistic. I believe in “God,” but my definition of “God” is different than what you’ll find in most churches. I go into this more in my earlier book, A Faith Worth Believing: Finding New Life Beyond the Rules of ReligionI don’t believe that there is a God who is a separate entity out there somewhere—a Guy in the Sky. I don’t believe the word “God” refers to someone. It refers, I would say, to the spiritual essence of reality and creation. What I am describing, I think, is very similar to what Jack Spong writes and teaches, except that he often comes across as somewhat strident. My work is softer.

DAVID: Yes, I’ve read most of Spong’s books and have known him for nearly 30 years and, you’re right: He deliberately remained within the Christian church, as a bishop, and so came across as very controversial and often as strident—an outspoken prophetic voice within the church. You’ve chosen a different path. You left your religious order and you’re working with folks who also are outside of organized religion. I agree: Your book is pastoral, both for people inside and outside of churches, now.

TOM: I wouldn’t choose to call myself more pastoral than Jack Spong. I would say that my perspective is more contemplative. Thomas Merton has been a big influence on me.

DAVID: Let me push you further. Jack argues strongly that he remains a Christian. How about you? Do you use that term to describe yourself?

TOM: Yes, I would say that I am Christian, because I see the person of Jesus as someone who is a revelation of the truth of this non-theistic God immanence, this God closeness, this Oneness. Jesus is someone who woke up to the truth of his own divinity and surrendered to that to a degree that most people don’t ever achieve. Now, at the same time, I would not say that Jesus is the one and only incarnation of God. I do think that—while Christians have taken the idea of incarnation seriously for 2,000 years—we’ve forgotten to take it personally. The term incarnation applies to Jesus, but it also applies to all of us. We are the enfleshment of the divine.

TOM STELLA: Prayer, T.S. Eliot and Waking Up

DAVID: So, a lot of readers will ask: Where does that leave prayer? You just referred to Thomas Merton as a major influence in your life. Throughout your book, readers will encounter a number of famous Christian mystics, including the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. We just talked about the revival of Hopkins’s poetry in an interview with Richard Rohr. You’re a spiritual director—an advocate of prayer. Yet, in your book, you point out the obvious question: “If we’re not sure there’s a God out there, then what’s the point?” That’s a question a woman asks you in the book. So, what do you say?

TOM: I’m trying to say that prayer is a lot bigger than we have been taught. I was taught that I was praying when I intended to pray and thought I was praying—and I was engaged either in a communal setting or some other formal setting of prayer. Prayer was confined to those settings and formats. But, in the New Testament, Paul teaches us to pray without ceasing. What does that mean? He’s inviting us to see that prayer is a lot bigger than we can imagine.

And, I am trying to say that life can be so much richer when we recognize that the living of it can be considered a prayer. Life is an encounter with the divine, embodied in everyday ordinary creation, if we are fully present and aware of this. Prayer can become something much more pervasive in our lives, almost indecipherable from the way we move through life itself. You may have seen this in the lives of people who have truly given over their lives to these truths. Think of the way St. Francis walked through life. People can come to a realization that every piece of the earth is holy ground. That’s where we get into contemplative sensitivity. It’s not just another way of defining and teaching prayer—this is about realizing that prayer is an entirely different sensitivity to life.

Click the cover to read our story about this recent Catholic collection.

Click the cover to read our story about this recent Catholic collection.

DAVID: I have to ask you, in this regard, about your choice of T.S. Eliot and a quote from his Four Quartets. Personally, I’m struck by how often Eliot is turning up in contemporary Catholic writing, these days. We published a review of a remarkable book, collecting contemporary Catholic writers under a title that also is taken from Eliot’s Four Quartets, the phrase “Not Less Than Everything.” Eliot kept asking: How can anyone who cares about humanity keep going in such tragic times? His answer was as long and complex as the 50 pages of the Four Quartets. But it involves making a total personal commitment to life. Or, as Eliot puts it—a commitment “costing not less than everything.”

In your book, you quote four lines that come just before that famous phrase about the cost. You quote this:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Tell us why you chose those lines.

TOM: Ultimately, this is all about waking up. That’s what the spiritual life is all about—recognizing the fullness of where we are and where we’ve been. It’s enlightenment. William Wordsworth put it this way in his Ode, Intimations of Immortality:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

In a sense, Wordsworth is saying something very much like Eliot was saying in those lines you just quoted. We wander through life. We forget. We are lost. In a sense, we have to wander to find that we are home, again. Ram Dass says it this way: “We’re all just walking each other home.” Ultimately, we recognize that we’ve been on sacred ground the whole time.

DAVID: What do you hope readers will find when they’ve read your book?

TOM: I hope they will come away from this book with a spiritual understanding of religious truth that is a deeper understanding than the conventional interpretations that are all around us. I want them to realize there is a real baby in this bathwater of spirituality and it shouldn’t all be tossed out the window. I want them to be able to name and claim something new as the foundation for a more life-giving faith.

Care to read more on similar themes?

Learn more about Tom Stella: He is the co-founder and director of the non-profit Soul Link, Inc., whose mission is to create opportunities for spiritual seekers to meet and facilitate spiritual growth. Tom is a visiting associate professor of religion at Colorado College, a hospice chaplain, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and the author of three books, including: The God Instinct and A Faith Worth Believing, Finding New Life Beyond the Rules of Religion.

Read The Spirit encourages compassionate, cross-cultural relationships. We publish a series of books on caregiving. Check it out in the We Are Caregivers department of Read The Spirit. We publish books by Daniel Buttry about interfaith peacemaking. And we publish a Michigan State University series of cross-cultural guidebooks.

Share this Tom Stella interview with friends! Please, start a conversation with your friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icons connected to this interview. Or email this interview to a friend using the small envelope-shaped icons.

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

Trying to steer your congregation? Try a stunt kite!

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

Welcome back Martin Davis, a well-known congregational consultant. He’s good at answering the nuts-and-bolts questions people are asking nationwide, especially about communication. Please, click on a blue-”f” Facebook button to suggest that friends read this column along with you. Want Martin to help you? See the note at the end of this column. Here’s Martin …

Of Kites and Communication

By MARTIN DAVIS

Yes, that's me—trying to master the stunt kite. Yes, as a father, my pride seemed to hang in the balance. And, no, it wasn't easy!

Yes, that’s me—trying to master the stunt kite. Yes, as a father, my pride seemed to hang in the balance. And, no, it wasn’t easy!

Our week at the beach in North Carolina was a family vacation—but I came home with more than a tan and fond memories. I came home with a fresh insight—and it all began with a promise I made like so many fathers:

“Kids, while we’re on the beach, we should fly a kite!”

With the exception of Charlie Brown, there are few people who don’t enjoy kite flying. I learned the activity in the Boy Scouts—we won’t discuss what year; just know it was before the ’80s—where I learned to make and fly these wingless birds. A simple, relaxing activity. Place it on a string, get it airborne, and watch it soar.

To the local kite store we went. The kites of my youth—one string, one tail, and some plastic wrapped around two crossed sticks—were nowhere to be found. Instead, we were greeted with an array of shapes, colors and sizes.

We picked one out, carried it to the beach house, unwrapped it …

… and spent the next hour figuring out how to get it together.

Then it took another 20 minutes to unlock the mystery of connecting two separate lines to the kite—standard on today’s “stunt kites.”

It was a humbling experience. My youngest used to believe I was all-knowing, invincible. Alas, no more! At least, I consoled myself: It happens to all parents sooner or later. After all, my colleague Benjamin Pratt just admitted to the whole world: “I’m only a father!

In those first hours with this new kite—I repeated that line! Putting the kite together was easy, as it turned out, compared with learning to fly it. Initially, the kite spent more time knotted and doing nose dives in the sand dunes than sailing gracefully beside the ocean.

FROM NOSE DIVES TO SOARING WITH THE BIRDS

But by mid-week, our experience was quite different! I began to get the hang of controlling two sets of strings instead of one. Of learning to read wind directions and currents based on the feel of the lines, and compensating by pulling the appropriate string.

Before any of us thought possible, we were not only flying the kite, but we were making it dip and dive, weave side-to-side, and complete 360-degree turns. We learned to read wind currents, and to marvel at how we could watch the birds’ paths and learn from them by mimicking their flight paths with our kite.

How similar kite flying is to how many congregations must feel about communications today.

Before electronic media (email, e-newsletters and the like) and social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, among many others), congregational communications were like an old-school, one-line kite. Attach your information to the end of a string—the traditional print newsletter—and wait for the wind to take it where it would. Sometimes it would catch an updraft, sometimes not. Either way, there was little you could do to control it. All you could do was build it, let go, hold onto the string for dear life, and hope the kite flew.

Today, the range and variety of electronic communications are more akin to the world of multi-line stunt kites. Each electronic platform has not one, but two strings that allow you not only to send information out, but to read how well that information floats on the currents of your congregation and adjust your message accordingly.

It takes a little time. Generally speaking, we’re good at pushing information out, but we’re must less equipped to read how well that information is playing with our audience and to adjust to that information.

Once you learn it, however, you’ll never go back. After all, better to learn to dodge the kite-eating tree with the new communication tools than to continue crashing into such barriers over, and over, and over again.

Want Martin to help you?

That’s easy! Visit the website for his courses and consulting: Sacred Language Communications. As this column is published, an online class is starting soon—and an in-person conference is scheduled in Virginia. Visit the Sacred Language Communications Events & Registration page to learn more.

You can contact Martin Davis via this page within his website. Martin plans to regularly publish helpful columns in Read The Spirit through the autumn and winter. Please, share his columns with friends by clicking on the blue-“f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

The Ram Dass interview: Smiling as he teaches about ‘Polishing the Mirror’

Ram Dass photo by Dassima Murphy 2012 used courtesy of Ram DassBaby Boomers know Ram Dass as an American celebrity from the 1960s who came back from India in 1971 to publish a strange square-shaped book: Be Here Now. Some call that book “the Baby Boomers’ Bible”—and there is a good argument behind such a claim. We recently reported on pulp magazine pioneer Ray Palmer, who began bringing Americans popularized stories about Asian religion even before World War II. But it wasn’t until the era of Be Here Now that millions of Americans could immerse themselves in full-scale Asian spirituality.

Since its debut, Be Here Now has racked up a stunning total of 2 million copies sold—and counting. Ram Dass has built on his original message in 11 additional books, a series of audio recordings, documentary films and short videos. Ram Dass also is famous for his 1978 establishment of the Seva Foundation, a highly respected charity that primarily focuses on curing illnesses of the eye in Asia, Africa and Native American communities.

Then, in 1997, Ram Dass made headlines once again for suffering a devastating stroke. As Baby Boomers, we were confronting our own looming mortality as we watched this perennially smiling genie of the ‘60s utterly humbled by his own body. As Ram Dass puts it himself: “I went from driving my sports car wherever I wanted to go—to being a passenger.”

Now, flash forward 16 years to 2013 and here is a personal note from me, David Crumm, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit: Over the decades, I have interviewed Ram Dass a half dozen times. This summer, I read his new book, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Heart, with great interest.

In the opening pages, Ram Dass briefly retells the dramatic story that many Baby Boomers know so well: As a rising star in the Harvard faculty, 30-something psychologist Dr. Richard Alpert teamed up with psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary. In the new book, Ram Dass understates their titanic collision: “Meeting Tim was a major turning point in my life.” No kidding! The two Harvard scholars experimented with psychedelics, beginning with the mushrooms common in ancient Native American cultures. Leary and Alpert, later to become Ram Dass, were twin lightning rods, interacting with a Who’s Who of leading spiritual lights—from Aldous Huxley to Alan Watts and far beyond. They grabbed hold of the forces they were discovering—Ram Dass soon studying in India with his Hindu guru. Collectively, they pumped high-octane spiritual fuel into Baby Boomer culture.

When I learned that, these days, Ram Dass prefers to do interviews via video Skype, I was even more curious. Most Read The Spirit author interviews are conducted via telephone. On Skype, how would he look at age 82?

The answer: He’s old. Ram Dass says it that way in his book—he’s old. He’s noticeably slower and more deliberate in his expressive hand gestures. But, those who recall Ram Dass in his prime will be pleased to know that his sparkling eyes are undimmed and, when he gets going, he still likes to throw his head back and smile with that big, toothy grin we know so well. Post-stroke, aphasia continues to slow his speech. He must consciously think through his responses, so the words in this hour-long interview came slowly and often with pauses between phrases. Sometimes, we would stop so that I could read the words he had just spoken back to him, letting him gather his thoughts so he could choose his next words. (I haven’t included those repetitions in the following highlights of the interview.)

There is great inspiration in the 2013 life and work of Ram Dass, whether you are drawn toward Eastern religious traditions or not. As Baby Boomers, we take heart in seeing one of our most colorful mentors take old age and disability in stride. Sure, he’s a passenger these days—but, whatever seat he’s occupying in that sports car, he’s still speeding ahead of us toward our collective horizon line.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH RAM DASS
FROM HIS MAUI HOME ON ‘POLISHING THE MIRROR’

DAVID: The last time we talked, it was 2000 and you were just finishing Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. I was a newspaper correspondent, specializing in reporting on religion. Now, more than a decade has passed—feels like far more than a decade! We’re professional colleagues, you and I, but more than that—a lot of Baby Boomers think of you as a character in our own life stories. You’re our “friend,” in that sense. You’ve been an influential teacher and writer and, like a genie, you keep popping up in our lives. So, as an old friend to many, tell us a bit about what life’s like there at your Maui home.

RAM DASS: I came to Maui some years ago and vowed that I wouldn’t fly anymore. After a life of traveling city after city—moving all the time—I got here and decided to explore contentment. And, I am content. It’s just wonderful here. As we’re talking, I’m looking out and can see the ocean. The rains come very often here and I’m surrounded by such beautiful flowers.

DAVID: I’m also a longtime friend and colleague of Don Lattin. Several years ago, we featured an in-depth interview with Don and recommended his book The Harvard Psychedelic Club. I know Don talked to you while reporting that book about you and your old friends, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil and Timothy Leary. So, tell us what you think. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Do you recommend Don’s book?

RAM DASS: I’ve known Don since he was religion editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, but I am not completely comfortable with that book. There were many other people active in that whole era and the story was more complex than what he writes. So, no, I wouldn’t recommend that book.

Ram Dass Cover 1971 Be Here Now

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

DAVID: But you certainly haven’t repudiated that wild era. In fact, you write about it honestly in the opening pages of your new book. This new book is mainly focused on spiritual teaching, which we’ll talk about in a moment. But, in the first few pages, you write about your early career. I’m fascinated especially by the way you still emphasize the importance of your three most famous words: “Be Here Now.” After more than 40 years, you’re still saying: There’s great wisdom in that phrase. Is that a fair thing to say?

RAM DASS: Yes. Yes, that is fair to say. When you delve into the moment, the moment right now—and you’re right now in the moment, the moment, the moment—then you are going into the spiritual life. The moment doesn’t include time and space. It’s just here. (And Ram Dass gently taps his heart.) In here. In here. Is there wisdom in those words? Yeah, I think: Very much so.

RAM DASS:
‘JUST WALKING EACH OTHER HOME.’

DAVID: Because you’ve been such an influence on a whole generation, I asked other writers what questions I should ask you in this interview. The one I’ve chosen is from Tom Stella, who was a Catholic priest for many years and now is an author and teacher of spirituality from his base in Colorado. Tom said, “Ask him about the line that I’ve repeated—and I’m sure lots of others have as well. Ram Dass says, ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ Ask him to talk about that line.’”

When reading your new book, Tom’s question jumped out at me because one of the first sub-chapters is called “The Road Home.” So, please, talk about what you mean in this metaphor.

RAM DASS: Well, “home” is the one. It’s God. When I went into psychedelics, I had an experience where I felt everything being stripped away from my self. I was in my heart, my spiritual heart. All I could say was: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home inside.”

Then, when I went to India, my guru looked at me with unconditional love. And I remember that as: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.”

We all spend so much time living in this outer world, then we encounter things that force us into our inner world. The inner world is what I consider to be home.

In “walking each other home,” I’m talking about how we as individuals—individual persons or individual countries with all of the separation that we experience—through moving toward inner consciousness, can become one. That’s a shift in consciousness. If we can find a way to walk each other home, we could reach a point where there is no more conflict between egos and nations.

RAM DASS:
‘THE WAY THE WORLD CHANGES IS HEART TO HEART …’

DAVID: This is a good place to ask you about the hard and rewarding work of “spirituality.” It’s a term you proudly use—and so do millions of American men and women, many of whom prefer that term to “religion.” This spring, the famous Rabbi David Wolpe issued a challenge in TIME magazine to anyone who claims to be “spiritual but not religious.” Wolpe pretty much described spirituality as easy and selfish. He wrote, “It’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change.”

RAM DASS: Institutions don’t change the world in fundamental ways. The way the world changes is heart to heart to heart by individuals, not by institutions.

DAVID: We are speaking, today, on the same day that the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is addressing the United Nations. TIME magazine now calls her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. In her address to the UN, she said, “On the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, courage and power was born.”

RAM DASS: (smiling, then laughing out loud) That’s just what I’m talking about! I’m sure that is affecting many hearts in the august gathering of the United Nations—and I’m sure it will affect the hearts of all the people who hear her story.

You know, this was true when we began the Seva Foundation. This is what happened to the ophthalmologist Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy. He began working in a very poor village in India with just a small eye hospital that he and his family supported. But it was the heart-to-heart spiritual connection that changed everything. He was working with patients, but he really saw them as souls. He saw his hospital and all that he was doing as a way to come to God. The repercussions of that model expanded his hospital and now this work is being done all over India. It began with his spirit and it spread heart to heart.

RAM DASS: ‘POLISHING THE MIRROR’

Cover Polishing the Mirror by Ram Das

CLICK ON THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.

DAVID: Then, let’s talk about the title of your new book, Polishing the Mirror, which comes out August 1 and already is on sale at Amazon. At first glance, the title could sound like the very complaint that Rabbi Wolpe raised in TIME magazine—spirituality as narcissism. But you’re not talking about polishing mirrors so we look better to ourselves, are you?

RAM DASS: We polish the mirror of our spiritual hearts, so the beauty of our soul becomes visible. That means, we polish the spiritual heart so that, from our heart, we can radiate love and compassion and consciousness and other people can get in touch with their spiritual heart, too.

These days, when I roll down the street in my wheelchair, (tapping his fingers on his chest, over his heart) I love all the people I encounter. This is really true. I really do. And when I look into their eyes, I feel that I am mirroring their spiritual heart.

I am sorry that I am not more eloquent in speaking with you, (moving his fingers to point toward his mouth) but you understand that since my stroke my words come with difficulty.

DAVID: Your words are very engaging, today. And this is a good transition to talk about what I find to be the most fresh and hopeful part of your new book: the final section on the process of aging. Some of the insights in these pages are well known to us. But, I really was struck by your teaching that describes the central question in aging as: “Can you find a place to stand in relation to change where you are not frightened by it?”

RAM DASS: When you get old, everything changes—your body changes, your family changes. You can’t do what you’ve always done, anymore. And, either you can complain about things changing—or you can be content. Instead of complaining, you can say: “Oh, yesss! Look at all this change!” You can welcome it.

When I stroked in 1997 and then was lying in the hospital, all the people around me were saying: This poor guy! He’s had a stroke! I started to think that I must be a poor guy. Somebody put up a picture of my guru on the wall of my hospital room. I looked up at that picture and I said: Where were you!?! You know: Where were you in this stroke?! You’ve been raising up my life—all the way up to this stroke.

DAVID: You describe yourself in the book as depressed and angry, your faith deeply shaken.

RAM DASS: I thought I knew about aging and changing. (He smiles broadly.) As it turned out, this stroke has been an incredible grace for me. It is true that, in the past, I played golf and drove around in my sports car and I liked to play my cello. Now, I can’t do any of those things.

Instead, I’ve turned further inward—and that has been wonderful. That was grace.

In 1985, I wrote a book with Paul Gorman called How Can I Help? After the stroke, I found myself asking: How Can You Help Me? Instead of being this big, strong, powerful helper who could go anywhere and do anything—I find myself now dependent on so many people around me.

Now, as I say these things, you have to admit: It sounds bad doesn’t it? (He smiles knowingly.) Our culture says it’s bad to be dependent on others, right? Not a good thing! But, you know, we are all souls. That’s what Dr. Venkataswamy discovered in his clinic.

DAVID: And now we’ve come full circle to our previous interview, haven’t we? I remember interacting with you, at that time, just a few years after your stroke when Still Here was coming out—and that book supposedly held your teachings on Aging, Changing and Dying.

RAM DASS: (Still smiling broadly.) When we talked, I had written that book about what I thought aging and dying was all about. But I was in my 60s. Now, I’m in my 80s and this new book talks about what it’s really like. Now, I am aging. I am approaching death. I’m getting closer to the end. (He pauses, tilts his head back and looks out at the Pacific.) I was so naive when I wrote that earlier book. Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me. (And he laughs.)

Care to read more on similar themes?

Read The Spirit publishes a series of books on caregiving, from end-of-life decisions to everyday coping with chronic illness—even a humor book by cancer survivor Rodney Curtis, called A (Cute) Leukemia. Check it out in the We Are Caregivers department of Read The Spirit.

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