The Carrie Newcomer interview on ‘A Permeable Life’

Restless this summer? Eager to roam? Hoping to discover something that will energize and motivate you all year long? Then, don’t wait: Get Carrie Newcomer’s latest collection, A Permeable Life, and start singing along.

You can enjoy her first song, today, in our Interfaith Peacemakers department. It’s called Every Little Bit of It, a perfect song for a summer adventure. Here are a few of the lyrics:

Just beyond my sight,
Something that I cannot see,
I’ve been circling around a thought,
That’s been circling round me. …
There it is just below the surface of things,

In a flash of blue, and the turning of wings,
Drain the glass, drink it down, every moment of this,
Every little bit of it, every little bit.

Around our offices, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I’ve been humming that song for weeks—alternating with Carrie’s triumphant hymn of praise for America’s all-but-forgotten workers. In this season of political struggle to raise the nation’s minimum wage and help working families have at least a shot of climbing out of poverty, I can’t get Carrie’s The Work of Our Hands out of my head. Her song’s title and refrain echo my favorite Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
Through all generations. …
May the favor of the Lord rest upon us;
Bless the work of our hands.
Yes, bless the work of our hands.

Carrie’s version of The Work of Our Hands could become an anthem for the movement to recognize, honor and improve the lives of millions of marginalized laborers who shore up the foundations of our nation:

They lay hands on boards and bricks,
And loud machines,

With shovels and rakes,
And buckets of soap they clean.
And I believe that we should bless,
Every shirt ironed and pressed,
Salute the crews out on the road,
Those who stock shelves and carry loads,
Whisper thanks to brooms and saws,
Dirty boots and coveralls,
Bow my head to the waitress and nurse,
Tip my hat to farmer and clerk,
All those saints with skillets and pans,
And the work of their hands.

Ready to meet Carrie? As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I interviewed her about this new album. Here are …


DAVID: Our regular readers know you already—either as longtime fans of your music—or from reading our earlier interviews on your album Before and After and on your East-West collaboration with Indian musicians in Everything Is EverywhereBeyond the music you write and perform, the one other identification people make with your work is: You’re a Quaker. But, what does that mean?

CARRIE: That’s an interesting question because usually, when I tell people I’m a Quaker, that’s it. It’s wonderfully vague. People kind of know that Quakers are people who have a long history of peace-and-justice work. People think we’re kind of a religious group but they’re not too sure about that. Generally, I say I’m a Quaker and they don’t ask any more questions.

And, I do shy away from hard-and-fast categories—I do that in my art, as well. I feel very much akin to Parker Palmer. Often we’re put into categories of “progressive Christianity” or “progressive spirituality” because of the Quaker affiliation. I can say: Quakers are spiritually grounded and a great deal of attention is paid to living out the ideals of justice and peace and love in the world in a particular kind of way.

DAVID: Quaker communities vary widely in style and worship. What kind of a Quaker meeting do you attend?

CARRIE: I go to an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, which means the meetings are for worship but they also are meetings for discernment and contemplative mediation and prayer. You’re right: There are a lot of flavors of Quakers and there are some Quaker communities that do have programs like some of the mainline Protestant churches. Then there are Quaker communities where people don’t even refer to God as God. They prefer to speak to whatever connecting unity there is as The Light. There are some Quakers who don’t call themselves Christian, and there are others who call themselves absolutely Christian. I like the unprogrammed meetings, because I think they are more open to all of the above. It is more about individual revelation and journey—experienced in a community context. Each person’s journey is their own; and the community is there as well.

DAVID: Describe one of your unprogrammed meetings. Readers, I think, may be surprised that a woman known around the world for writing and performing music attends worship that is mainly an experience of silence.

CARRIE: In an unprogrammed meeting, people enter at a certain time. Our meeting starts at 10:00 and it’s in a circle. There’s no pastor. People sit in the silence and they listen. In our lives, we tend to do a lot of talking at God or at the universe and, in a silent Quaker meeting, part of the idea is that you’re not praising or asking or confessing. What you’re doing is listening—you’re spending time with what’s sacred in our lives in that space. Sometimes people will stand and speak out of the silence but there’s a lot of respect for the silence in our group. This isn’t group therapy. Unless you really feel pressed upon your heart to say something, then you probably shouldn’t say it.

This usually takes place in about an hour. Sometimes, people will speak. And, sometimes it’s an hour of being in community together in silence. Generally, there is someone in the meeting who sits on a facing bench. That person finally will turn to the person next to them and shake hands. And that mean’s its over. Sometimes, once a month generally, we have a query where there’s an hour afterwards and there’s a question we talk about. We might ask about the testimony of simplicity: How is that working in your life?


DAVID: I started with those questions, this time, because this is the first project you’ve published that also comes in book form. In A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays, you invite people to go beyond the music and actually explore some of the experimental poems and essays that you write before finally creating your songs. The collection in this book is fully formed—really thought-provoking poems and essays to read on their own. But, as you explain in the book, these pieces are experiments with ideas that may evolve, over time, into new songs. Tell us about your process, because it’s different than the creative process followed by many songwriters.

CARRIE: You’re right—we’ve all got our processes. If you ask 11 different songwriters what their process is all about, they will come up with 15 different ways they do this! My personal approach usually starts with a poem or an essay or a story. I’ll do a lot of writing that isn’t songwriting—I’ll write in these other forms and I’ll explore the topic for a while. That lets me play with the idea, write about the idea and hone the way I talk about the idea. From this process, I may come up with the one line that starts the song. Then, by the time I am writing, the words and music usually happen at the same time for me.

In this book, I’ve put together a collection of my essays and poems and stories—and most of them in this book represent the writing that started a song. That may be overt or it may be subtle in the way these pieces started songs. Then, for this book, I also added a few other pieces that weren’t the beginnings of specific songs, but were related to the themes that show up in these songs.

DAVID: I love the richness of your language in the songs you create. Compared with other songwriters, these are beautifully written songs. And, the interplay of language in nearly all of your songs makes you want to hear the song again—often right away. You want to catch all the twists and turns. Talk a little more about the way you use language.

CARRIE: I am a songwriter. I use these other forms of writing as a place where I can develop food for my work as a songwriter. One challenge is the condensed format of songs. You only have a few verses, a chorus and maybe a bridge—so every word has to count. And, the words that you choose to include should reach further than the actual, individual words. Then, you have the element of music. Lyrics share a lot with poetry but lyrics are not strictly poetry on the page. Lyrics are written to entwine with music so, if you read lyrics out loud, they don’t come off with the full effect that the words are meant to have. The words on a page aren’t the same as the final music.

DAVID: You’re right! And I did struggle with this in planning this interview. We are going to quote a few passages from your lyrics, but we’re also going to link to your website, where our readers can find samples, and we are going to include one of your videos in the Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website today: Every Little Bit of It.


DAVID: My favorite song in the new collection is The Work of Our Hands. I hope this song travels far and wide. I hope we all hear it being sung at events celebrating America’s millions of workers—especially those who are underpaid and under appreciated. In that song, you’ve got a memorable melody, a rhythm that builds as you lay out the litany of workers—and a wonderful interplay of words.

CARRIE: Something really good happened in my songwriting when I gave myself permission to do a couple of things. One thing is: I allow myself to write the song I write today. When songwriters are starting out, they want to put the whole sum of their worldly knowledge into every song. It’s like pastors trying to write their first sermon.

But the best songs usually are about one thing. Just one thing. So, I write the song I write today and, another day, I write another song. I give myself permission to write today and that day’s masterpiece (she laughs) will likely be about one thing.

Here’s another thing: I have given myself permission to be a Hoosier.

DAVID: Anyone who has listened to much of your music knows that you’re from Indiana. Among my favorites from your earlier albums is the song that lists a lot of the county fairs and local festivals in Indiana. In this new song, The Work of Our Hands, you start with a description of how you prepare spiced peach jam and how you can dill beans “from an old recipe that my mother gave to me.” That’s a vivid, flavorful picture.

CARRIE: My potent voice is my most authentic voice. I’m never going to sound like someone who grew up in Manhattan. And I don’t have to cover that voice in my music. That’s for someone who actually grew up in Manhattan. My most potent voice comes when I give myself permission to be a Quaker from the middle of the Midwest.

I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.

Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.

DAVID: As I listened to The Work of Our Hands, all sorts of associations were firing in my mind. I heard the song as an echo of my own favorite Psalm 90. And, I also thought of an interview I did with Barbara Brown Taylor a few weeks ago. In her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she describes a back-country graveyard for poor sharecroppers in the Great Depression. The graves were hand dug; the soil was mounded on top; and the families lovingly placed on those dirt mounds objects from everyday life: a nice dinner plate, a tea cup or even, in some cases, lightbulbs in that era when electricity hadn’t reached every home. Why? These objects represented vocation and aspiration: In other words, they represent hope in “the work of our hands.”

‘Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.’

DAVID: Tell us more about the origins of your song.

CARRIE: The genesis of that song began with a friend of mine who is a wonderful organic farmer in the Bloomington area. She invited me to do some canning in her back yard one August afternoon. At the end of the afternoon, there were about 20 sweaty women and a million jars of salsa. And as we were getting ready to leave, I just listened to what people were saying about the day’s work. These women weren’t talking about where they were going to store or keep the jars; they all were talking about the people to whom they were going to give these jars.

One would say, “I’ll give this to my sister.”

Another would say, “I’ll give some to my neighbor. She’ll love this.”

This work had turned into an expression of love. We all were thinking about the people we love. I went home and wrote a bit about this and then I started the song.

In spiritual community, we talk about “love,” but that idea of “love” can get really big and unwieldy and unfocused. I’m much more interested in the small kindnesses we do for one another every day. Kindness is the country cousin of love. Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks. Kindness irons the shirts without even mentioning it.

DAVID: I think you’ve just given us a very quotable portion of this interview. I love that: Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.

‘A movement of air from the singer to a listener’s heart’

CARRIE: These are ephemeral things, really, and I hope that people will see and appreciate these things. After all, my art is ephemeral. I make air. It is relatively recent in human history that technology has existed to carry a song beyond the one time and place in which it is sung. The artform is ephemeral—a movement of air carried from the singer to the heart of the listener.

As I wrote The Work of Our Hands, I was playing with this whole idea. We need to see and appreciate these lovely, humble, daily things that we can do for one another that we so often miss and that are gone as soon as we do them.

DAVID: It’s crucial that we develop this vision in our lives—this constant awareness of things happening on the periphery of the circle. Or, as you put it in Every Little Bit of It: “Just beyond my sight, Something that I cannot see …”

I’ve been talking about these transformative challenges with other authors this spring—with Brian McLaren in an interview we’ll publish soon about his new book We Make the Path by Walking and with Barbara Brown Taylor about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark and Marcus Borg about his new book Convictions, which really is a book about change and growth in a rich life.

CARRIE: I think that this is so important, as an artist but also as a person. You have to be able to give up what you already think you know. You have to grow. And that’s not always an easy thing. We are comfortable with what we think we know

Maybe that’s part of getting older, too. You know, if I stop and look back, I sometimes think: Once, I really did think that was true! Parker Palmer calls it reaching the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Sometimes you do wind up returning to a simple truth—but now you know it with a much deeper complexity.

DAVID: I wish that you could somehow collaborate on a soundtrack to Barbara’s new book or Marcus’s new book. You’re singing about the same themes they’re exploring in prose. One of the first questions I asked Barbara Brown Taylor in this recent interview was: Why did it take so long for you to complete this new book? She answered: “Honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

CARRIE: It’s a hard truth to appreciate.

I like thinking about the seeds that sit in the ground all winter. Then, in the spring, we’re surprised by all the green. All through the dark winter, those seeds were deep in the ground and something was happening there that we couldn’t even see.

And then the spring comes, the leaves come out—and there’s this riot of color. Life is both shadow and light. And I’m saying to the world: I want to embrace all of that—every little bit of it.

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

Best Books on Abraham Lincoln and Civil War from our reviewers

ABRAHAM LINCOLN and the Civil War were so important in shaping American life that ReadTheSpirit regularly updates our Abraham Lincoln Resource Page—packed with columns, materials for small groups, reviews, sample sermons—and much more. Visit that Resource Page to find additional columns by Lincoln scholar Duncan Newcomer, the writer whose reviews are featured prominently on this Best Books page. The first review, here, is by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …

The Civil War and American Art


Photography and the American Civil War


YOU may never see the actual exhibitions from which these two thought-provoking coffeetable books were drawn, but the books themselves make remarkable gifts for any American history buff. Both books go far beyond reproducing large-format prints of remarkable paintings and photographs from the Civil War era. They provide a great deal of thoughtful reading related to these works of art, as well.

In The Civil War and American Art, Eleanor Jones Harvey draws on her decade as the senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to tell readers the story of these startling paintings, including Winslow Homer’s 1865 “The Veteran in a New Field.” At first glance, the canvas seems to be a nostalgic rural scene—striking in its beautiful colors and simple design. In Harvey’s accompanying prose, she points out this design was anything but simple!

Most Americans think of Homer as the nation’s favorite seaside painter and forget that he began as a visual journalist—sent to the front lines of the Civil War by Harper’s Weekly, the TIME magazine of its era. Virtually the moment the war ended, Homer began this more-than-3-foot-wide canvas and, before it was finished, reworked the imagery in several ways. Readers of Harvey’s large-format book can easily discern the discarded Union uniform in the lower right of Homer’s canvas. (The uniform looks like a dark oval in the small web-resolution image with this review.)

This crumpled uniform made the painting a vividly familiar image for Americans nationwide as Union soldiers returned to farms to discover, at least across the North that year, an especially abundant harvest. Then, as Harvey explains in the book, Homer deliberately painted a style of scythe that 1865 viewers would have immediately recognized as an ancient model. Even then, contemporary farmers cut with more modern tools.

As 1865 viewers pondered this painting—especially as Civil War veterans looked upon it—they would have realized that Homer was evoking The Grim Reaper, even then a stylized figure with this kind of scythe. What’s more, any veteran would have shuddered at the scene, remembering countless battles fought in fields just like this. The harvester in the painting was moving through a field, mowing down the wheat as he once had mowed down opposing troops. And, even as they recoiled from such a memory, Harvey tells us, they might remember, too, the biblical references all of them would know about beating swords into plowshares.

It may sound surprising, but this lavish art book is a real page turner!

So is Jeff Rosenheim’s equally engrossing Photography and the American Civil War. If Vietnam was the first war televised in American living rooms, the Civil War also was a media first. As Rosenheim writes, “For the first time ever, the camera recorded a long and ferocious war from beginning to end.”

Most Americans may assume that Mathew Brady was the only man with a camera crisscrossing war-torn America. Certainly, a half dozen of Brady’s iconic photos are the images widely known from that era. Rosenheim points out that there were roughly 1,000 photographers on the move during the war, producing hundreds of thousands of images. What’s more, Rosenheim argues, it was in the capturing of these photos that Americans collectively were able to mourn the enormous losses. Suddenly, all Americans could see the youthful faces of all of those young men—now dead and buried. Plus, all Americans for the first time could see a realistic image of the carnage left on battlefields.

“In the creation of this vast treasury of photographs—a national visual library of sorts—the camera performed a key role the opposing armies and their leaders could not: It defined and perhaps even helped unify the nation through an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making,” Rosenheim writes.

NOTE: The “Civil War and American Art” exhibition has closed, but the “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibition continues at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, through January 5—then it reopens at the New Orleans Museum of Art January 31 through May 4, 2014.


Abe. A Novel of the Young Lincoln




First, why not a novel about Lincoln? Great writers of history work hard to get us to see the human Lincoln behind the white marble giant of the Lincoln Memorial, and the great rock face of Mount Rushmore.

But it’s not that easy. It takes an act of imagination to re-image Lincoln. The problem of finding the real Lincoln is difficult because Lincoln was a giant in almost all ways. We also have had all those years of tall tales about him. Most of them amazingly are true. But it takes a giant act of imagination to get a new, real, sense of him. It would take a great myth to get behind the big myth of Lincoln.

What a gigantic act of imagination it was then for Richard Slotkin in Abe: A Novel of the Young Lincoln to picture young Lincoln on his flatboat Mississippi voyage like Huck Finn on his mythic raft. Huck Finn’s journey is a deep story and image in the American mind. Lincoln could have been Huck’s older brother. Through the lens of Mark Twain’s story we have an imaginative way to see behind the lofty image of Lincoln. A great novel about young Lincoln, paradoxically, can be the cure for an overly mythologized President Lincoln.

The genius of Slotkin to place Abe imaginatively on a Huck-like raft was quickly noted by Kevin Baker in his positive New York Times review, shortly after the book originally appeared a decade ago.

This would be a great novel even if it were not telling the tale of many greatly known historical figures. As an historian Slotkin knows the details and the facts of hard frontier life—a mythic tale all its own. But as a poetically inspired writer he takes us into the heart and mind of his lead character, who just happens to be the Abraham Lincoln we think we know.

In a novel historian Slotkin can picture the swaddled infant Lincoln in his mother’s arms, “…the river flowing under them all, dark, and him drifting with it, yearning towards a dim shore that almost had a shape.” (p. 4)

In the second chapter of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Herbert Donald’s biography, Lincoln we find the title, ”A Piece of Floating Driftwood.” Both Slotkin’s novel and Herbert’s biography touch on similar themes. These are not just images; there is fact to it. Herbert’s original theme is the “essential passivity” of Lincoln’s nature. We know, near the end of his life, Lincoln’s dream was of rushing in a boat to a far distant shore—both the nation being saved and his journey being over.

A book like Abe, fact-based fiction, does for us what David Herbert Donald also sets out to do in his must-read historian’s biography.

Putting on an expertly crafted set of blinders, Donald asks, at every stage of Lincoln’s career what he knew when he had to take crucial actions. His is a biography “written from Lincoln’s point of view using the information and ideas that were available to him.” (p.13). Donald does this largely based on “Lincoln’s own words.”

Lincoln in Slotkin’s novel, as Donald pictures him in his biography, is just trying to act—as we all do—and face the flow of life as it comes. This flow is what Donald gives us in factual detail and narrative. What Slotkin’s fiction does is to take us even one step closer. In an historical biography we still see Lincoln in the camera-eye of biographer. But in a novel we are with Lincoln floating down the river. We see and feel the life of this wild and profound young man from within the one dramatic truth he had—that he didn’t know that he was Abraham Lincoln, at least not the Abraham Lincoln we know. He just thought he was Abe, or even just, as he most often signed his name, A. Lincoln.

Historical fiction is not history. The movie “The Butler,” based on the true story of the long-time White House butler, is not all factually true. It is mythically true. This is how “Abe” should be read, historically true to the real story, but also truly inside the big story.

Donald gives us one of the best new clear-eyed and lucid views of the whole Lincoln life. We cannot do without that. Slotkin paints Lincoln’s coming of age in the colors of an American life now writ large.


Lincoln: The Biography of A Writer


The poet Shelley wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” After reading Fred Kaplan’s brilliantly minted biography of Lincoln as a writer we can see how a legislator—Lincoln’s chosen occupation—can be the poet of the world.

In Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, Kaplan says that it is as a writer, with unacknowledged poetic genius, that Lincoln rose to power and governed the warring nation. Kaplan shows us how Lincoln took his cue from Ralph Waldo Emerson. How many people know of this surprising connection? After hearing Emerson talk in Springfield, Lincoln dove back into the deep currents of American history to embrace and channel the one natural power that could solve the problem of disunion and slavery.

What was that natural power? American values. Lincoln perceived that the country could rise above the curse of slavery and survive the threat of disunion through a language—a language!—that appealed to American’s preference for justice. That, and our generous willingness to extend to others the benefits of our belief in the idea that all men are created equal. Greed and folly, aggression and slavery, would not defeat this natural force if Americans could be presented with that American story in compelling language. It was Lincoln’s literary task—written and then spoken—to do so, says Kaplan.

Lincoln did this all with his words, such as the image of the house divided. He did this with words that created actions. Hear this, his words in Chicago in 1856, “…can we not come together for the future. Let every one who really believes, and is resolved, that free society is not, and shall not be, a failure…let past differences, as nothing be….let us inaugurate the good old ‘central ideas’ of the Republic. We can do it. The human heart is with us—God is with us…to renew the broader, better declaration that ‘all men are created equal.’”

Kaplan’s case is both strong and relevant. He reminds us that Lincoln had no political office in 1854, and was all but washed up politically. The explanation of how Lincoln rose on his moral passion and his “superior language skills” becomes convincing. It is eerie to read this view of Lincoln on language, written in 2008: “He appreciated the inherent danger to effective government in political parties: the manipulation of language to advance their agendas.” (p.243)

He shows us Lincoln’s rich language when he takes a written speech (Lincoln rarely ever departed from a written text) given at the Wisconsin Agricultural State Fair in August of 1859, and gives it the line breaks of a poem. By this point in the book we have already deeply studied Lincoln’s poems on mortality and memory and even a bear hunt. These poems, Kaplan shows us, are of real literary quality. But this he calls Lincoln’s best poem. It is Whitmanesque, before Walt Whitman’s 1882 volume, Specimen Days.

Lincoln’s first line is, “Every blade of grass is a study.”

Lincoln’s written speech, ends with …
“… the thousand things
Of which these are specimens—
Each a world of study within itself.”

Lincoln’s intellectual biography includes the great poets: Burns, Byron and Shakespeare. So when Kaplan takes us through Lincoln’s love letters—yes, love letters—we see how the poets could affect Abe Lincoln’s heart. Kaplan explicates the sordid Mary Owens love affair more clearly than most biographers because he takes the time to understand the words and their psychological nuance.

Lincoln read widely, including major works of his time—or of any era. From Hume to Voltaire to Pope and Milton. Along with Burns and Byron, which he kept at hand and near and dear to this heart, he read Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Bunyan, Longfellow, Edgar Alan Poe. The Library of Congress, Jefferson’s idea and original gift, was Lincoln’s library. Kaplan knows which books he checked out and when. The state library in Illinois was his study away from home as he prepared for his massively detailed, more-than-7,000-word Cooper Union speech in 1860.

In the course of his book, Kaplan shows us how nature, cause and effect, first principles and even God figure into our history—and our tragedies that Lincoln viewed as echoing Shakespeare’s tragedies. Kaplan shows us Lincoln as a man who, at first, viewed language as an honest tool, much like an axe—then learned how, in the end, the pen is the mightiest tool of all.

“He became what his language made him,” Kaplan writes. A master biographer who also has written on the lives of Henry James, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, Kaplan begins this book by quoting the famous editor of The Atlantic, William Dean Howells, who said that “Mark Twain was the Lincoln of our literature.” Indeed, we have noted the role of Mississippi riverboat mythology in both lives. Kaplan wants to suggest that, because Lincoln was such a good and devoted writer—perhaps he is the Mark Twain of our politics. I think this underestimates—if that is possible—Lincoln’s skill.

Not only did Lincoln become what his language made him—we became what his language made us.


Care for more on Lincoln’s language?

A talk by Duncan Newcomer is featured in four 15-minute YouTube segments given at The Working Man’s Institute in New Harmony, Indiana, on the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, November, 2011. In the talk, Duncan takes a secular look at the language of Abraham Lincoln. He shows how—with no church membership and little formal education—Lincoln authored speeches that were and are prophetic and revelatory of spiritual truths for our nation’s history. Seeded in the mystery of language and his own sense of “yonder” Lincoln’s love of language carried him—and us.

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

The Art of Spiritual Living never looked so inviting



Americans are soaked in religion, compared with the rest of the world’s peoples. Based on the World Values Survey, we rank with Pakistan and Iran in the intensity of faith. Yet, in sharp contrast with other religiously saturated cultures, Americans also feel an overwhelming desire to express ourselves. On that scale, we rank with those outspoken Scandinavians!

We demand faith on our own terms. That’s true whether you choose to be a lock-step fundamentalist or a free spirit.

We’re unique in the world for our intense mix of desires. New religious movements rank among America’s most valuable exports. A century ago, a shockingly mixed bag of men and women met in what the Los Angels Times called a “tumble down shack” on Azusa Street. Their Pentecostal celebration eventually blew the top off traditional worship around the world.

In the 1930s, Bill W and Dr. Bob were religious innovators in launching the world’s first lay-led spiritual movement with an interfaith definition of God as a “higher power.” The list could run on and on—from Shakers in the 1700s to Joseph Smith in the 1800s. After World War II, the spiritual floodgates broke wide open. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his Guideposts took the world by storm, Bishop Fulton Sheen became a 1950s TV star with Life Is Worth Living and, by 1965, millions of Americans heard The Gospel According to Peanuts.

In the new millennium, the matriarch of serious American religion writing, Phyllis Tickle, launched a mighty effort to tug wayward Americans back to ancient spiritual disciplines—such as praying at the Christian Divine Hours with a series of weighty new books. Eventually, Phyllis convinced the evangelical publishing house Thomas Nelson to produce eight volumes on Christian disciplines. She assembled a Who’s Who of authors to tackle topics including prayer, sabbath, tithing and fasting. All of Phyllis’s books are terrific. All are substantial offerings for Christians who are ready to dive deep. In other words, she and her co-authors left lots of room in the spiritual marketplace.

We restless Americans always are itching to discover the next spiritual shore. This has fueled a host of religious fads—and it’s not worth dragging those out of blessed obscurity by naming them. Suffice it to say that the late George Gallup Jr. surely is nodding his head somewhere, repeating his motto: “Faith in America is miles wide—and a quarter inch deep.”

That’s why the ambitious project undertaken by Stuart Matlins and his talented crew at SkyLight Paths Publishing is such a milestone. These books are authoritative—and wildly compelling. Yes, they take us deep, but each one is an exciting invitation to dip one’s toe into these waters for the first time. Christians are welcome, but so is anyone of any faith.

Over the past seven years, SkyLight has sent into the world a small library, each volume following SkyLight’s core principle:

“Through spirituality, our religious beliefs are increasingly becoming a part of our lives—rather than apart from our lives. While many of us may be more interested than ever in spiritual growth, we may be less firmly planted in traditional religion. Yet, we do want to deepen our relationship to the sacred, to learn from our own as well as from other faith traditions, and to practice in new ways.”


Click on any of the book covers shown with this column today to visit the SkyLight Paths overview page for the series. From that online gateway, you can explore the full range. In 2006, this series debuted with an especially keen choice: Rami Shapiro’s The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness. One team of sociologists poring over the World Values Survey crunched the global numbers to identify the core character strength of each nation. The scholars found that America is unique in the world with a core character strength of “kindness.” So, the SkyLight series began with a perfect topic. As a nation, we see ourselves as kind; the anxiety we feel is largely due to our current lack of kindness. You may want to start your pilgrimage through this series with Shapiro’s book, which strikes at the heart of our spiritual quest as a people.

You will find many disciplines that cut across the major world religions:

  • Pilgrimage—The Sacred Art: Journey to the Center of the Heart;
  • The Sacred Art of Chant: Preparing to Practice;
  • Giving—The Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity;
  • The Sacred Art of Forgiveness: Forgiving Ourselves and Others through God’s Grace;
  • Thanking & Blessing—The Sacred Art: Spiritual Vitality through Gratefulness;
  • Decision Making & Spiritual Discernment: The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way;
  • Hospitality—The Sacred Art: Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome
  • The Sacred Art of Fasting: Preparing to Practice
  • Lectio Divina—The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer

In choosing from that list for your first small-group discussion in your congregation, you’re likely to pass muster with pastors and lay leaders who serve as gatekeepers in almost any mainline denomination—Protestant or Catholic. Start with those and you’ll be well on your way toward a couple of years of lively small-group experiences. Some communities may want to challenge themselves to organize a congregation-wide “read” of a book.

And a special note for clergy who are reading this column: You’ll be marking pages, mumbling, “Yeah, that’ll preach!”


Once you get this series in the door, the results will be obvious. If properly organized, your group will grow; people will talk about what they are exploring over coffee or an evening meal; you’ll want more and more.

The secret of growth in many big churches lies in unlocking parishioners’ affinities. One classic megachurch example is a group of guys (and often some gals) who love fixing cars—but nothing else motivates them to get off the couch. So, the church invites them to form a prayer-and-service group to spiritually support each other week by week. Then, in many big churches, these “car nuts” provide free service for older parishioners, single parents, poor families—and suddenly these folks who never set foot in a house of worship are highly engaged. No, Stuart and his SkyLight crew have not yet found an author to produce The Spiritual Art of Car Care. But, there certainly is room in the market for such a book, given that the classic in this tiny niche of motor-oil spirituality, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is approaching its 40th anniversary in 2014. The time is right.

SkyLight already is summoning many affinity groups. Among them:

Fly-Fishing—The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice; Running—The Sacred Art: Preparing to Practice; and Spiritual Adventures in the Snow: Skiing & Snowboarding as Renewal for Your Soul. These are terrific choices to grab and go with friends from your community. Among this trio, I highly recommend the winter-themed book right now. It’s packed with all kinds of engaging material: spiritual reflections, stories by “real people,” practical ideas. You’ll love the section in which “exuberant novice” Ann Lamott describes the spiritual high of skiing (and falling).

Writing—The Sacred Art: Beyond the Page to Spiritual Practice and Haiku—The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines. Two volumes in the series are geared toward the writers in your community. I especially recommend the Haiku book. When I have been invited to teach journalism courses, over the years, I begin with a Haiku exercise. Journalists who feel overwhelmed with a major news event find that, first, turning a big story into a Haiku quickly clarifies the challenge.

Everyday Herbs in Spiritual Life: A Guide to Many Practices. This global exploration of herbal themes, projects and even a few recipes taps into the always strong pull of nature in our spiritual journeys—and the growing interest in rediscovering the food practices that connect with our spiritual and cultural traditions. The text is fascinating, but you’ll especially enjoy the dozens of detailed herbal projects.

Recovery—The Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice. The SkyLight series wisely acknowledges the enormous debt we all share to the courageous circle of friends who, amid great personal anguish, hammered out the principles of 12-step programs. This is truly deep wisdom.

About an hour west of the SkyLight team’s headquarters in Woodstock, Vermont, is the hamlet of East Dorset where Bill Wilson was born in his family’s tavern and inn. Today, it is an international shrine and pilgrims’ sobriety tokens often are left on Bill W’s humble gravestone. Clearly, the SkyLight team has taken Bill W’s spiritual genius to heart. At the end of every book in this series, readers find this note:

SkyLight Paths sees both believers and seekers as a community that increasingly transcends traditional boundaries of religion and denomination—people wanting to learn more from each other, walking together, finding the way.

Go on. Buy a book. Jump in.

Wherever they are hovering with their higher power these days, George Gallup Jr. and Bill W will smile down upon you.

DAVID CRUMM is the Editor of online magazine and publishing house. For 40 years as a journalist, David has covered the impact of religion and cross-cultural issues around the world.


This Cover Story is Special: Throughout 2013, dozens of leading authors and media producers who care about America’s religious diversity are jointly raising awareness of the best in current publishing. In this Cover Story, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m at the center of this coordinated national effort. Collectively, we’re shining our spotlight on this very important series of books that are coming from SkyLight Paths Publishing in Vermont.

I researched and wrote this cover story, “The Art of Spiritual Living never looked so inviting.” Then, this same cover story that I wrote also is being published by our California-based friends at The Interfaith Observer magazine. (You may want to check out their October issue, which includes a version of this same story.)

Why are we doing this? Those of us who devote our lives to the best in spiritual and cross-cultural writing—and that includes the folks who work at the Interfaith Observer and SkyLight Paths—realize that there is a real danger that important voices (authors, artists, publishers) could fall silent as traditional media networks crumble. We want to be part of the rebuilding of inspiring, authoritative networks promoting healthy approaches to faith and diversity. We are working hard, together, to keep these important voices raised.

What can you do? Read today’s cover story. Tell friends. Share the news on Facebook. Choose a new book that interests you—and buy it. (And, in addition to SkyLight Path’s webpage for the books, above, we also recommend that you check out our own ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.)

Together, we can make a huge difference.

(Published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Fran McKendree: How we are called to Awakening Soul


“God, put me in the midst of what you are doing, run me over with your presence, and allow me to bless what you are doing.”

This prayer is one of the touchstones of my morning meditation, as I begin my waking time each day. Humbling, grounding and enlightening, a reminder that I have work to do, that I do not do this alone, that this work, when I get my “small self” out of the way and stay true, can lead to what Michael Meade calls “threads of meaning—hints of purpose.”

Each morning this is a threshold crossing—moving out into the world, carrying in my heart the desire to live into the fulfillment of my calling. Over time, I have come to learn that deep in my heart is a yearning to create space where, with others, we might be fully present to the wonder, mystery and unfolding of our journeys.

Music—singing, making music or connecting with the music that’s already there, as Victor Wooten would say—is one of the shorelines where my yearning finds a home. So, I am continually searching the horizon for opportunities to connect through soulful music. In 2011, with the wise counsel and support of my wife, Diana, and other trusted friends, I formed with my colleague Ann Holtz the partnership we’ve call “AwakeningSoul.”

Our hope and underlying purpose in this endeavor is to create and host gatherings that offer:

  • Sanctuary—respite, a safe harbor where we know our anchor will hold fast in the rising, ebbing tides;
  • Sustenance—a banquet of wisdom, truth-telling, mindfulness and new awareness;
  • Inspiration—knowing we are not alone on our journeys, emboldened, invigorated, grateful and encouraged as we head back into our worlds.

For our first gathering, “A New, Ancient Harmony,” in December of 2011, we invited as presenters my dear friend John Philip Newell and poet Judy Brown, someone new to my circle but whose work I greatly admired. I wanted very much to have an intergenerational music ensemble and was thrilled to include Lindsey Blount, Charles Milling and Duncan Wickel. Rounding out our group, in between these young adults and me came River Guerguerian, a world renowned percussionist and beautifully creative spirit.

Our “weaver”—skillfully and artistically shuttling the waft and warp of the community we were forming was my fellow sojourner Brian Prior, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. Certified Spiritual Director Diana McKendree and Brian led workshops for us as well; Diana offering an exploration of dream work, Brian focusing on living into our gifts. Ann handled with deft skill all the details, “nuts and bolts,” and design challenges that came our way.

John Philip led us each morning in his gentle, soul-searching way toward a lasting connection with all that we hold deepest within our hearts. Judy brought her gift of word-shaping to help us all remember to hold space in the kindled fires of our lives where “the spirit, knowing just how it wants to burn, can find its way.”

Our participants gave us in return the raising of their beautiful voices in song, the gift of their lively, spirited and profound conversation, full of hope and excitement, and most graciously, their trust and gratitude. Our musical ensemble brought to life all that was dancing around in our hearts and guided us at other times on the pathway toward that rare and mysterious glade we call stillness.


This November we’ll host our second event, “Modern Mind—Ancient Soul.” We have invited Lauren Winner and Jerry Wright to be our presenters. Lauren is an author (Girl Meets God and Still), a professor at Duke School of Divinity and an Episcopal priest. Jerry is a Jungian analyst, pilgrimage leader and Presbyterian minister. We’ve asked them to join us, not because they have “the answers,” but because they speak with integrity, courage, wisdom, humor and vulnerability;

“The things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living. Something has shifted; something has moved; you are looking for God and you are looking in ways that you hadn’t known to look before.”
Lauren Winner

“Each generation must embrace the image of the Divine which best expresses the experience of the Divine. A god image which is not continually dying [transforming] is not worthy of our worship, since god images which do not change become idols.”
Jerry Wright

Our music ensemble will return to lift us once again, and Brian, Diana, and our other gifted, tireless support team will be bringing all their energy. Our evenings this year will be devoted to exercises that will lead us into deep, meaningful conversation. Our intention is that we are preparing the shape—we know that this gathering will only emerge fully with the energy, creativity, soulfulness and generous spirit of those who join us…. a community of seekers.

Read the Spirit has been for me a wonderful café—bustling with incredibly passionate and articulate seekers, yet offering a quiet corner for savoring the moments of “ah ha-ness” that sparkle each day, like light dancing off a prism in a kitchen window on a sunny morning. The folks I have met through this online magazine, regulars and drop ins, have been inspirational. I hope and pray that our Awakening Soul gatherings shine from that same prism, and that our time together and the paths we travel will be enlivened and enriched by our shared love and desire to continue to seek those “threads of meaning and hints of purpose.”

READ MORE in our overview of the November 2013 Awakening Soul gathering, which includes links to learn about dates, location and registration.

The Sacred Art of Hospitality interview with Nanette Sawyer

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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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

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

Benjamin Pratt: Had enough time weeping? Try laughter.

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

Interactive Humor: The Broom


“a time to weep, and a time to laugh”
Ecclesiastes 3:4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The March: U.S. Rep. John Lewis rewrites history with a comic book

UPDATE: Since this original 2013 column was published, Lewis released Volume 2 of his graphic novel and then in 2016 he published the third volume. All three volumes now are available in as a set from Amazon.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia already is famous as a living hero of the civil rights movement, still crusading in Washington D.C. against new threats to civil rights. He regularly appears in major news reports about the controversy over voting rights in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that erases many long-standing protections. As the August 28th 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington looms, he suddenly is appearing on front pages and in network TV reports as the sole surviving speaker at that historic event in the summer of 1963.

What’s more, he’s suddenly popular with younger Americans as the first U.S. congressman to write a comic book—a graphic novel. He made a personal appearance at Comic-Con San Diego where even celebrities lined up to meet him. However, as the New York Times reports: Lewis was far more interested in this comic book “as a way for him to reach young people and fulfill his duty to ‘bear witness.'”

What the NYTimes did not report was that Lewis was inspired by a comic book he read as an 18-year-old budding activist. The Washington Post did include a mention of that 1958 comic book in its recent coverage of Lewis: “As a young man, Lewis got his hands on the 1958 comic book ‘Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,’ which, he said, with its poster-colored lesson of nonviolent protest, inspired many student activists. ‘It was about the way of love,’ Lewis says. ‘We were beaten and arrested . . . and that comic book inspired me to make trouble. But it was the good kind of trouble.’ “

Now out of print, the original comic is available in various archives. It was produced under the auspices of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. You can see the cover of the comic book, at right today. You can read more about the history of the 1958 comic book, thanks to Comic Vine, a website that has emerged in recent years as well-respected haven of information on classic comics as well as reviews of current releases.

Read more about various key figures related to the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Daniel Buttry’s inspiring book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Buttry also has published online his entire chapter on the remarkably courageous career of John Lewis.

By David Crumm

As Editor of Read The Spirit online magazine, I am proud to say that we have published many stories about the importance of comics, comic books and graphic novels in sharing stirring stories about faith and cross-cultural issues.

So, I was eager to read John Lewis’s graphic novel and tell readers what you will find in between its brightly colored paperback covers.

The first surprise: While I understand that John Lewis is the first congressman to produce such a book, I still find myself stopping and staring at the book’s first page. Inside the front cover is one of U.S. Rep Lewis’s official Washington D.C. portraits. That juxtaposition alone—the 1960s civil rights movement on the cover and one of our nation’s top elected leaders on the inside cover—tells us a lot about this dramatic half century.

Of course, Lewis understands drama! The new PBS documentary film, The March, includes the story of how a very young John Lewis turned in an advance copy of the speech he intended to deliver at the podium in 1963—and discovering that his planned text was so dramatic that some of the more timid leaders almost bolted from the event.

In his graphic novel, Lewis opens his story on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Five pages of gripping scenes show the police violence unleashed that day on the steadfastly nonviolent protesters. Then—Lewis flashes forward to Washington D.C., as congressmen conduct the nation’s business these days. Visitors arrive at Rep. Lewis’s office and begin asking questions. Clearly, his concern as a storyteller is the important legacy of the civil rights movement. This isn’t a tale told for the sake of nostalgia; this comic book is an educational campaign to capture the imagination of young people today.

In fact, most of “Book One” is about Lewis’s own youthful days in the movement—especially dramatic scenes in the nonviolent protests that opened up integrated seating at lunch counters. Appropriately, readers meet other heroes of the movement, too: Diane Nash and James Lawson make courageous appearances in this first book.

Book One ends with the triumph in Nashville, when segregated lunch counters finally yielded to the moral force and fearless action of the young protesters. An actual section of one such lunch counter now is on display at the Smithsonian Institution—on the very Mall where, in later volumes of Lewis’s graphic novel, the tide of history will carry these heroes.

CARE TO READ MORE? Order a copy of March Book One from Amazon. You also can read much more about John Lewis in this excerpt from Daniel Buttry’s book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers. We also have posted online Buttry’s stories about Nash and Lawson. Enjoy!

Care to See John Lewis?

Below, you can click to watch what we think is one of the best video news reports floating around the Internet about John Lewis’s new comic book project. If you don’t see a video screen in your version of this story, try clicking on the story’s headline to reload the page. (And note: The original poster of this news report on Lewis has included a 15-second commercial message that plays before the report.)