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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Shoah: A Table of Elements

by Dov Abramson, guest contributor

Shoah: a Table of Elements

"The trade of chemist (fortified, in my case, by the experience of Auschwitz), teaches you to overcome, indeed to ignore, certain revulsions that are neither necessary nor congenital: matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatsoever. Nitrogen is nitrogen, it passes miraculously from the air into plants, from these into animals, and from animals into us; when its function in our body is exhausted, we eliminate it, but it still remains nitrogen, aseptic, innocent."
—Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

The Holocaust represented a contradiction in perception: ordered, regimented evil and unrestrained, billowing pain. For decades, artists have sought to capture the ineffable destruction that befell the Jewish people.

"Shoah: A Table of Elements" describes the task of making order of the ungraspable. In so doing, it works to release some of the emotional charge of our most raw subjects, while evoking the more prominent associations of the Holocaust: the gases, the smoke, the debris.

"Shoah: A Table of Elements" is a meditation on how we commit to memory, how we use symbols, and how we represent that which we cannot behold.

שואה: לוח יסודות


Dov AbramsonDov Abramson is founder and creative director of an art and design studio in Jerusalem, Israel. His work combines classic graphic design and branding with independent artistic work that deals with Jewish and Israeli identity. His projects have been featured in Zeek, Forward, Maariv, Haaretz, and the Chicago Tribune, and his art has been exhibited at The Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Tumblr. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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T’shuva: Recognizing Holiness

by Laura Hegfield, guest contributor

Found Heart-White Mts, NH, USA

I was watching the gathering clouds and their shifting shadows on those familiar mountains for quite a while. I saw you, but it wasn’t until I turned and took a step that I could truly see you.

With an intake of breath, my heart expanded in awe, recognizing yours, so perfectly formed.

How many others had passed by without noticing? What if I had not turned that afternoon, had not taken a step?

Gratitude awakened, witnessing this mirrored image of sacredness balanced on the mountainside.

                                                  You.   Me.   God.

Standing as One in this single moment of grace.

I love this tree. I love remembering the feeling of awe that filled me when I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and realized that the branches and leaves grew into a perfect heart shape. But I didn’t see it right away; it took a while until I was standing in just the right position to be aware of what was in front of me the whole time.

The form was there, the core essence of holiness was present all along, but I had to orient myself properly in order to recognize it. I think the same can be said for the holy essence that resides within each of us.

During the month of Elul, leading up to the Yomim Noraim, the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a Jewish spiritual practice to make t’shuva — to turn, return to our goodness, our godliness, to God.

We turn inward. We look in our hearts and examine closely the mountains of mistakes we have made. We turn towards those we have hurt and ask for forgiveness. We promise to do better — at the very least to try to be kinder and more thoughtful in the year to come. We do what we can to repair what we have broken. We make a conscious shift from where our hearts were positioned when we were intentionally hurtful or simply not paying attention to our words and actions. We return to God awareness, remembering that it is when we forget our own divinity and that of others that we inflict harm.

We choose to change, to grow. Like the micro-movements of alignment a yogini must make to settle into vrkasana (tree pose) with strength, firmly rooted, balanced, open, present, we readjust our inner stance until we can see beyond the misdeeds, harsh words, insincerity, apathy, judgment and wounds to discover our own holy hearts, beautifully formed, strong, rooted, balanced, open and fully present; silhouetted before the jagged background of those mountains. The dark clouds move aside, our holiness shines brilliantly. It was always there. Here. We forgive ourselves; perhaps the hardest step of all. We have returned.


Laura HegfieldLaura Hegfield is a daughter, sister, wife, mother and lover of life with an artist’s soul. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three years ago, she is no longer able to work outside her home. She stays engaged with the world through photography and shares her journey on her blog.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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To Pray or Not to Pray? Civil Religion and the 9/11 Memorial Service

by Rick Elgendy, special contributor

Obama and Bush Pray at 9/11 CeremonyU.S. President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama and former U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush observe a moment of silence at the time the first hijacked airliner crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center during the tenth anniversary commemoration of the September 11, 2001 attacks at the lower Manhattan site of the World Trade Center in New York. (photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

Last weekend, as the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, our collective media gaze focused on lower Manhattan, where the memorial service and dedication led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already provoked controversy. Though the focal point of these events was undoubtedly — and rightfully — on remembering those lost, that controversy was a revealing glimpse of contemporary American religion.

Bloomberg, concerned to avoid religious entanglements in a government observance, had not invited any clergy to participate, nor had he included prayer in the schedule of the service. This move, predictably, provoked protest from religious conservatives. Chief among these: Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who entreated Bloomberg to reverse his decision, since “invocations are the quintessential American form of solemnizing events.” Sekulow, whose organization advocates for an understanding of religious liberty wherein religion dwells comfortably in the public square, insisted that his argument had little to do with either partisanship or proselytizing. Instead, worried that “[t]o exclude prayer from any events remembering 9/11 only serves to diminish the purpose of the event,” he engaged in an all-out public relations campaign, including a letter-writing drive, a talk-radio tour, and a debate with David Silverman, president of American Atheists. Bloomberg did not relent, but that was not the end of the story.

The service itself featured, in addition to Bloomberg and the reading of the names of the victims, readings from President Obama, George W. Bush, and Rudy Giuliani. President Obama read Psalm 46 in its entirety. President Bush quoted a letter from Abraham Lincoln, which closed with its own prayer. Giuliani, hardly a darling of religious conservatives, read the well-known opening of Ecclesiastes 3 after a preamble in which he claimed that “[t]he perspective that we need, and have needed…are best expressed by the words of God,” and followed his reading with a benediction: “God bless every soul that we lost. God bless the family members who have to endure that loss, and God guide us to our reunion in Heaven, and God bless the United States of America.” It turned out that no clergy were necessary: the politicians, whether spontaneously or in response to political pressure, brought religion into the service on their own.

Sekulow’s telling response came on Monday’s edition of his daily radio program, aimed at political advocacy. After assuring his listeners that he continues to disagree with most of President Obama’s policy agenda, he gave Obama credit for reading scripture: “[W]hether in his heart of hearts he believes it or not, he said it, and that’s important,” Sekulow responded to one caller. His co-host (and son) Jordan Sekulow then opined, “they’re not theologians, they’re not pastors, [but they were trying to] make the event solemn, and that’s what we do in America. Americans pray at memorial services. We pray in bad times; we pray in good times. We pray when we remember those we lost, and events like this.”

With the exception of the occasion, this exchange might be so commonplace as to go without comment from most corners. But the banality only obscures the strangeness of it all: that Christians who take themselves to be highly traditional, faithful, religious believers, unapologetic followers of Jesus Christ, yearn to hear a politician read a Psalm to them in public — whether earnestly or not! — and shift their use of “we” between reference to “Christians” and to “Americans,” without a thought about the difference. These are the defining features of American “civil religion”: a “God” stripped of most visible, traditional particulars, inserted into a new set of symbols — the flag, the government, a blessing of an American nation — and guaranteeing the basic rightness of the American cause, whatever that may be. This “God” is called upon to solemnize public events by invoking the felt memory of particular religious traditions with all its connotations of “divinity,” but is shorn of any particularity except the American kind. That many Evangelicals have adopted the promotion of civil religion as a Christian calling is one of the most important and most perplexing cultural issues of our day.

Yet, civil religion is not a strictly Evangelical phenomenon. Its presence in American politics harkens back at least to the mention of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. It certainly predates the modern religious right and represents the uneasy compromise between religious liberty as free exercise, seemingly calling for some public acknowledgement of America’s many religious citizens, and as disestablishment, requiring those acknowledgements to be vaguely generic and non-exclusive. On a smaller scale, it is not unusual for many Americans who have never darkened the doors of a church on an ordinary Sunday to seek ceremonies offering religious articulation of life’s major milestones and events: birth, adulthood, marriage, illness, death, etc. For Christians (for whom I can speak), who understand themselves as called to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice, these moments might provide welcome occasions for hospitality.

But there is a darker side to civil religion: if the “we” in Jordan Sekulow’s comment that refers to “Americans” is normative for all, rather than merely descriptive of many, then that “we” leaves out many others who exercise their right not to freely exercise a religion or to exercise a religion incompatible with the civil religion. The impetus to identify with civil religion easily becomes uncivil, for example in fights about whether or not mosques are welcome in local communities, or about the placement of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses. The connection between specifically Christian discipleship and these types of endeavors, which are usually presented as defenses of religious liberty against creeping secularism, is rarely made explicit, likely because it is tenuous, at best.

In the meantime, perhaps some of those in attendance or viewing at home derived a modicum of comfort from hearing President Obama read Psalm 46, or from Giuliani’s closing words; few would begrudge them that. But we would also do well to treat our civil religion, the cloak of divinity that politics wears uneasily and often dishonestly, as an object of suspicion as much as an American tradition.


Rick ElgendyRick Elgendy is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Communing with Beauty

by Rita G. Patel, guest contributor

"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita G. Patel"Beauty and Its Possibilities" by Rita Patel

The architect Christopher Alexander tells this story in The Timeless Way of Building:

I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.

A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles—often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think about it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond.

Not only is the description both vivid and beautiful — conjuring up a lovely image — but the emotion from actually seeing and being with this beauty in nature is profoundly powerful.

If I am open, moments where I can deeply see, feel, and be are available in all sorts of so-called common places and interactions. And what happens is that I don’t just observe with my senses and my mind, but I commune with the beauty of it in my heart — that is where it happens, where I actually feel it. The feeling doesn’t stay but the feeling about other things afterwards is always affected. And the more I experience this beauty the more I realize that it does not disappear but is always present. Available to connect to when I am available. A wonderful thing to wake up and remember and make a habit.

"Radiance belongs to being considered precisely as beautiful; it is, in being, that which catches the eye, or the ear, or the mind, and makes us want to perceive it again."
~Etienne Gilson


Rita G. PatelRita G. Patel is an artist, chef, and business consultant living in Rochester, Michigan. You can read more of her writing at Beauty’s Invitation and see her artwork at 365 Days of Print.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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The God Who Fits Our Agenda: 9/11 Then and Now

by Debra Dean Murphy, special contributor

The lightPhoto by Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday. Most of us remember that day and what we were doing around nine o’clock that morning. (I was at the veterinarian’s office; we had just gotten a puppy the Saturday before).

September 11, 2011 is a Sunday. For those of us who will be in church that morning — in the pulpit or the pew — there’s an expectation that something important must be said; that appropriate ritual solemnity must be observed; that meaning, in some form or fashion, must be made.

It’s just bad, calendrical luck that the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks falls on a Sunday. Tuesdays are made for the busyness of school and work, for picking up the dry cleaning, and taking the dog to the vet. Sundays seem to call for ceremony and somber speechifying. Most pastors and preachers, I suspect, won’t be able to resist the urge.

But what is left to say? Haven’t we done too much talking and not enough listening these last ten years? And haven’t Christians of all stripes spoken too hastily about the events of September 11? Haven’t we summoned pious God-talk for our own well-intended purposes, sputtering and stuttering dubious theological explanations for an inexplicable tragedy?

In his beautiful book, Writing in the Dust: After September 11, Rowan Williams suggests that “when we try to make God useful in crises, we take the first steps toward the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda.” It’s discomfiting to realize in the immediate and long-term aftermaths of tragedies like 9/11, that “we might be committed to a God who can seem useless in a crisis,” Archbishop Williams writes. Certainly this wasn’t the god invoked after the fall of the twin towers when our leaders summoned the “wonder working power” of a deity whom we simply assumed would sanction our “crusade” against global terrorism.

But we worship, in fact, this Sunday and every Sunday, a God whose power is made perfect in weakness. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew, “only the suffering God can help.” The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. Try putting that one on the churchyard sign sometime.

When we set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, we notice that the 9/11-inspired “remember and never forget” meets up with Jesus’ outrageous admonition to forgive ad infinitum those who sin against us.

The secular liturgies that have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 from the beginning until now make no room for forgiveness. Indeed, one of the unquestioned assumptions of such rites has been the specialness of our dying as Americans — the lopsided value we have placed on American lives lost that September day, compared to the men, women, and children who die every day, every second of every day, around the world, often in circumstances at least as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11. As anthropologist Talal Asad perceptively puts it, “human life has differential exchange value in the marketplace of death when it comes to ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ peoples” and “this is necessary to a hierarchical global order.”

So the “important” word we wait to hear this Sunday is one that should be routine in our hearing and our living: the suffering God of the cross gathers us, greets us, and sends us out to love and forgive our enemies. What we “remember and never forget” is the commemorative meal in which he feeds us at a table of gracious plenty. On a Tuesday or a Sunday or any day of the week, this is who we are: a people turned by the eucharistic table into friends of God and neighbors to all.


Debra Dean MurphyDebra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page

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I Am from… Fire

by Angela Blake, guest contributor

SevenPhoto by Alicia Reiner/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I am from fire.

I’m from the fire my father had for life and the fire my mother had for living. His was fueled by parties, drugs, wit, and self-involvement, hers by longing, anger, spite, and sweat. He was vivid; he hit her skin like sunshine and she finally felt warmth from an external source. She smoldered. He was curious to know how her sweat turned to the steam that hovered over her skin. What was her heat source? How could someone burn so hot without catching fire?

In the end, he combusted, was consumed by his own fire. In his 30’s, he was raging out of control, in his 40’s he was a smoking pile of embers. Today, he’s ash. He is gray and the heft of him scatters with the slightest breeze. Even his wit burned away. His heat from the outside stoked her burning on the inside and she nearly exploded. She had to protect herself or be destroyed.

She put down her longing, anger, and spite and put in more sweat. She worked and struggled and toiled and fought — she sweat, sweat, sweat, sweat — until the steam rose and condensed and rose and condensed, protecting her from the fire that was him and keeping the burn inside of her. It was a kiln, churning and working — always working — to produce something better, something that wasn’t just burning away life, but something that was living. She wanted to go on living, she needed to keep on living. She couldn’t let him take her, too. She couldn’t be burned away too. She had to work, work, sweat, sweat, burn, burn!

And I was born. I was ignited and her steamy sweat cooled me so I wouldn’t burn away. His flames, her burning, my birth.

I am living with a pocket full of ashes and a stomach full of embers. I am from fire.


Angela BlakeAngela Blake lives in South Bend, Indiana and regularly rants, rambles, and reflects on life as a black chick in the Midwest at Afro(ec)centric.

Angela submitted this essay in response to our call-out for readers to fill in the blank, “I am from…” If you’d like to finish this phrase and share something about yourself, your heritage, your geography, your interior mind, your imaginings or vulnerabilities, read the simple guidelines and submit your work for consideration.

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Fill in the Blank: “I am from…”

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"I am from"

Someone submitted this unfinished phrase for a potential guest post. Rather than discard the entry, let’s use this incomplete line as an opportunity to share and learn about each other, have a little fun on this Friday before the holiday weekend, and get creative!

Here are the guidelines: answer it any way you like. If you want to build on this phrase in prose — with one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one essay, then do so. If you want to finish this phrase with a photo or a photo essay, then do it. If you want to elaborate on this phrase with a line of poesy or a stanza, then do so.

Share something about yourself, your heritage, your geography, your interior mind, your imaginings or vulnerabilities. I’ll be featuring some of the most intriguing and creative ones from the comment section to this post in the coming days.

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Anonymous asked:
For a few years, my son and I have been practicing yoga as a means of quieting our noisy minds. I personally have had limited success with this, and although many of the asanas are meditative, I have not actually tried formal meditation techniques. I am interested in exploring this further, and wonder if anyone can suggest a good reference for a beginner. I am especially interested in one which might be good for someone with Aspergers Syndrome. My son was diagnosed at a young age, and I am told that I have "shadow-like" symptoms, as well. We both have issues with maintaining focus and follow-through.

I’m uncertain of where to begin, but know that sharanam has an extensive list of meditations and talks that might be a good starting point. I’d also like to open this up to the broader community and ask what others might recommend. Any ideas for this questioner? Please share with your followers so we can get this reader some help.

~answered by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Reinvesting in a Renewed American Dream of Family and Home

by Caitlin Shetterly, guest contributor

Cait with Matty at Home in MaineCaitlin with her son at home in Maine. (photo: Dan Davis)

What is the American dream, anyway? Do any of us know anymore? Is it F. Scott Fitzgerald’s vision of a “green light” and an “orgiastic future” that forever eludes us? Is it our founding fathers’ notion that all men are created equal to pursue happiness? Is it a house with a perfect lawn, an SUV, and all the material things we could want? What I do know is that many of us in the working middle class grew up believing in the promise of “fruited plains,” ours to harvest if we worked hard enough. America was “made for you and me.”

Three years ago this month, my new husband, Dan, and I packed up our small car and, with most of our worldly belongings and our cat and 90-pound dog, started driving west from Portland, Maine to Los Angeles, California. It was early 2008, and the recession had only just begun. But maybe I speak for many Americans when I say that my husband and I didn’t have any idea that the downturn would become as devastating as it did.

I’d always wanted to go west, ever since my mother sang me to sleep with "Red River Valley" and my dad read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books out loud to me before bed. Dan, too, was beckoned by the sunny skies and seemingly endless horizons of Los Angeles. I hasten to add that we weren’t completely naïve. Friends of ours were making good money in photography and film, as TV writers, and also NPR, for whom I worked as a freelancer, said they could use me covering stories from L.A. So we hit the road full of hope, the American dream unfolding in front of our windshield, ours if we just reached for it.

For a few months, our lives in California seemed to be slowly building toward the dream: I was pregnant with our first child, Dan was working. We had landed a small but comfortable apartment near the Venice Canals, a neighborhood we liked. Then, shortly after President Obama’s election in 2008, California was hit hard by the recession. But Dan had jobs lined up into the summer.

The week our son was born, the first week of 2009, every job Dan had through May was canceled. We had a new baby and were in a terrifying economic free-fall.

Over the next two months, we blew through the tiny bit of savings we had while Dan applied to hundreds of jobs and went door-to-door handing out resumes all over the city. Two weeks after our son was born, I went back to work filing freelance pieces for NPR. The little I made covered a few groceries and some gas.

Finally, the jig was up. I called my mom and said I didn’t know what to do. She said, “Come home, Cait.” So we packed up our two-month-old son and drove back across America, staying with friends who reached out to us on the long journey home.

Now, for some people, moving home and in with one’s mother (or, in Dan’s case, mother-in-law) would be a fate worse than hell. But what we found there in the six months we lived with her was something deeper and stronger than the American dream we had chased with such gusto just a year earlier. At home with Mom, as we planted the garden and baked bread, as we helped her as she helped us — the recession was hard on her, too — we were a family coming together to survive.

Dan and I had subscribed to a fundamentally dangerous notion that young families like mine think we should be toughing it out alone as if we were pioneers with nary a neighbor in sight; instead we should be asking for help and reaching out to help others.

Fitzgerald famously wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” I know from personal experience that’s not true. There, at home with Mom, we reconfigured our dreams so they were no longer about material things or images of a house with a perfect lawn and two cars out front. We got lucky, eventually. When I sold my memoir about our experience with the recession, we had $16 in the bank.

When I tell people my story they say, “Only in America!” or “That’s the American dream!” Perhaps. But I’d add this: by investing in our families and communities — as Dan and I have learned to do — we will be sustained through tough times. And with some communal baking of bread and a few extra hands we can get through anything, even if the American dream is on life support.


Caitlin ShetterlyCaitlin Shetterly is the author of Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home. She is a contributor to National Public Radio and artistic director of the Winter Harbor Theatre Company. You can read more of her writing at Passage West

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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A Source of Light in a Mechanic’s Phrase: A Poem

by Christine Poreba, guest contributor

A Mechanic's Light
(photo: Eric Tastad/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

Last summer, soon after returning from meeting my new niece, now nearly nine months old, the check engine light on my ’98 Honda hatchback came on. We brought it in to a mechanic’s shop that we hadn’t been to before. All the men who worked there were wearing these shirts that looked like bowling uniforms to me, with the script of Import Authority dancing across their backs. I had entered another world.

When we returned to pick it up, I looked down at the receipt and saw the phrase “Diagnose: cause of light.” Once again, I had entered another world.

For a moment I forgot the reason I brought it in, and my mind flashed through all the causes of light, the clearest being my new niece Clara — how the scent of her had etched into my skin, lifting its way across from California back to Florida with me. I loved how an ordinary mechanical phrase sounded so beautiful. This poem became my own way of diagnosing the daily and varied causes of light in my own life.

Diagnose: cause of light

is what the receipt
from my mechanic said.

In the top corner
of my computer screen,

discoverable is checked.
Sometimes words find us

right where we need them,
drive us out of our machines,

back to other luminary sources.
Back to meeting my month-old

niece whose name means
clear and light, the scent

of dried milk and cantaloupe,
the weight of her in my lap,

watching her hair grow, my
sister and I in a backseat again,

singing. A soft red square
of my husband’s handkerchief.

The last cardinal of the morning,
and the dog noticing the feeder

for the first time, head cocked
at the window, tail tilting

with the excitement of wing
motion, falling seed. Back to

leaving, then coming home
again, that moment when the sink

has shrunk and late summer light
settles in behind the trees.

Cause of Light
(photo: John Mann)


Christine PorebaChristine Poreba is a poet who teaches English as a Second Language to adults in Tallahassee, Florida. Her poems have been published in several journals and most recently in The Sun.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Lessons on Friendship from an Afghani Refugee Family

by Heidi Naylor, guest contributor

Afghan Family
Akbar, Rahima, and children two years after emigrating from Afghanistan. (photo courtesy of the author)

In 2001 my husband approached me about hosting an Afghan refugee family of four. I was hesitant. But my reservations — lice, tuberculosis, loss of solitude — seem petty and insulting now. In the end, they were outweighed by his enthusiasm.

So our family arrived one evening just before Memorial Day, exhausted from long travel. We stood outside nodding, smiling, shaking hands. Akbar wore a dark suit, Rahima a blouse and skirt and heels, the children ribbons and a bow tie and shined shoes. We had pizza and soda and very few words.

The next day we bought a Russian-English dictionary. We couldn’t find one in Dari, the family’s native tongue, but they’d spent years in Moscow so we found common words through a language belonging to none of us. Spasíba, pazhálusta, ímya, lagushka. The children laughed with our kids and our dog in the backyard. They needed no book, and before long were translating for their parents.

Over the weeks our English developed an accent, and we took to pantomime. One evening my son said he was going to take a shower. He mimicked the spray above his head and pretended to shampoo himself. I smiled. “Kid, I speak English!” Akbar watched with growing pleasure, finally erupting in laughter.

Rahima cooked succulent, beautiful meals with lamb and cumin, raisins and cilantro. We searched for her preferred rice and found a species of basmati I still buy for pennies per pound from an Asian grocer. Its burlap bag features an inked-on label: “Once taste eat for ever.”

Rahima made me tea four times a day, despite my discomfort at her servitude. She asked if I’d like one shovel of sugar or two. We laughed over the confusion of “kitchen” and “chicken.” She taught me to cook the okra I’d never liked in a way that was savory and “deshilous.”

One day we discovered our youngest sons were born within ten days of one another, on opposite sides of the Earth. Sistera, she said, pointing shyly at me, and she has introduced me in that way to her friends every since.

As our common words increased, we began to linger over dinner. We sprinkled our tea with cardamom, bit into Rahima’s crunchy lemon cookies, and listened as Akbar spoke of the Taliban and its terrible grip. “I want carpet,” he said, gesturing toward our Persian rug. “I want car, home for children. Television. Taliban no good,” he said, “no what you want…” He searched, settling on the Russian: svabódny. No liberty. Everyone was silent. I poured more tea. He looked around the table at his children, his sweet shy wife, our children. “Politic,” he said, like you or I might say “robotic.” He slapped his palm on his thigh. “I wery like.”

Our Christian religion requires fasting one Sunday each month, so I fixed breakfast for our guests and explained why we couldn’t join them to eat. Rahima asked, “One month?” — no doubt thinking of the Ramadan fast her religion requires. Well, no. But the practice, fasting in faith and devotion, was another thing we’d found in common.

After several weeks, their English improved to where they found jobs at a thrift shop and auto auction. They moved into an apartment nearby, the next step on the way to citizenship. And then, Nine-Eleven.

My husband was traveling, and I feared for his safety. I cried with the nation, watched in disbelief as footage revealed Muslims across the globe dancing in the streets. I phoned our friends and learned they’d also spent the day glued to the television. That evening the kids and I dropped by, and Rahima prepared a tray of tea and cookies. We chatted: work, new friends in the apartment complex, the start of school, the horrific attack. The talk was quiet. Their graciousness and loveliness were immediate, familiar, genuine. Our kids ran and shouted together in the grassy square outside the window.

Soon they moved to a larger city, seeking better employment, as any American is likely to do. We’ve visited them across the country; their children have grown and are pursuing further education, poised to better themselves and, as they do, make further contributions, again like so many Americans.

Before they moved away, I drove Akbar to the Immigration and Naturalization Service office to take care of some paperwork. Taped to the clerk’s window was a notice: “Warning!! If you have more than 180 days of unlawful presence in the United States it is our strong recommendation that you do not leave the United States for any reason.”

This was odd to me, but it was no more strange than the questions on Akbar’s application seemed, since I’d come to know him, though I understand their necessity: “Are you wanted for extradition for a crime you have or have not committed? Are you wanted for questioning or as a material witness? Are you or have you ever been engaged in espionage? Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or sedition?” (One woman thought a moment and answered, “force.”)

I did my best to explain each question. We smiled a bit. There was some patient, acquiescent laughter, and Akbar checked his answer in a box. In this way we tried to give the official behind the glass a clear picture of Akbar and his family. Some reliable notion of who they’d come to be.


Heidi NaylorHeidi Naylor teaches writing and literature at Boise State University. She holds a recent fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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It’s an Honor to Watch Your Truth Stand Up
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Although many of us may not fully understand the political and social  circumstances or ramifications of the demonstrations in Egypt, we’re heartened by the steadfastness and  assured nature of the protesters. This magnificent post from Erica at beenthinking captures the sentiment I think many Americans are experiencing as we watch the protests from afar: 

“There are four things you must do in life:
Show up. Speak the truth. Do what you do with intensity. And do not get attached to the results.”
One night almost two years ago, probably right before I most needed the  advice, my friend Sally shared this Buddhist philosophy with me over a  good beer. All morning, I’ve been following the developments in the  Middle East with a sort of rapidly worsening infection of interest.
I  heard a BBC correspondent on the ground in Cairo excitedly report that  in two decades covering this region, this is the most noteworthy,  remarkable development he has ever seen. Another reported that the  protesters are ebullient. Ebullient. Think of the wonder of  choosing such a deliberate, incongruous word to describe a demonstrating  mass. On the radio, the journalists all testified to the surprising  joyfulness of the crowd and even in the undeniable face of such  uncertainty; this is something worth sitting down or rising up to  consider.
So yes, who knows where it all goes from here. Who knows what becomes of  their moment and government or whether their situation betters or not. But what is stunning me, in a sort of unexpectedly emotional way, is the  incredible, wildly hopeful power of people who show up and speak their  truth. What is remarkable is their power to ignite a revolution. To spark truth in the perceived dark that surrounds them, even across national borders.
I always struggle with that last line of this guidance. Frankly, I don’t  always choose to respect that particular instruction, and, if I were a  young activist in Egypt, I might happily eviscerate it from the rest of  the instructions. I’ll be dammed if I will not be attached to my fate, I  might think. But the rest, the rest I think is the marrow of the  Egyptian story over the last week.
A few years back, I spent a couple of weeks in Egypt, amongst some of  the most reasonable, intellectual, and welcoming citizens I’ve ever met  in any country. A Muslim driver helped me decorate his classic car with  balloons and drove me to the airport to fetch my parents, whom I had not  seen for months and who were traveling to join me for an Easter holiday. He held the other half of my sign that greeted them in a crowded  airport and later, when we spoke of politics and the temper of  international relations, he said “Muslim or Christian, we all worship the same God. We are so much the same. And you are welcome here.” By which I suppose I mean to say they have earned an esteemed spot in my heart.
The sophistications of Egypt’s political and civil rights situation  surely elude me, as they probably do most Westerners whether we realize  it or not. I wouldn’t begin to assert a judgment on where they were or  the rightness of where they are headed. All I mean to say is this: They  know what they are ready for and they are showing up to ask for it. I  will always believe that we are better for having more voices around the  fire. And it was a strange mix of conviction and honor to watch The  People of Egypt show up in a way we do not, maybe do not have to. It is  an honor to watch your truth stand up.
It’s an Honor to Watch Your Truth Stand Up
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Although many of us may not fully understand the political and social  circumstances or ramifications of the demonstrations in Egypt, we’re heartened by the steadfastness and  assured nature of the protesters. This magnificent post from Erica at beenthinking captures the sentiment I think many Americans are experiencing as we watch the protests from afar: 

“There are four things you must do in life:
Show up. Speak the truth. Do what you do with intensity. And do not get attached to the results.”
One night almost two years ago, probably right before I most needed the  advice, my friend Sally shared this Buddhist philosophy with me over a  good beer. All morning, I’ve been following the developments in the  Middle East with a sort of rapidly worsening infection of interest.
I  heard a BBC correspondent on the ground in Cairo excitedly report that  in two decades covering this region, this is the most noteworthy,  remarkable development he has ever seen. Another reported that the  protesters are ebullient. Ebullient. Think of the wonder of  choosing such a deliberate, incongruous word to describe a demonstrating  mass. On the radio, the journalists all testified to the surprising  joyfulness of the crowd and even in the undeniable face of such  uncertainty; this is something worth sitting down or rising up to  consider.
So yes, who knows where it all goes from here. Who knows what becomes of  their moment and government or whether their situation betters or not. But what is stunning me, in a sort of unexpectedly emotional way, is the  incredible, wildly hopeful power of people who show up and speak their  truth. What is remarkable is their power to ignite a revolution. To spark truth in the perceived dark that surrounds them, even across national borders.
I always struggle with that last line of this guidance. Frankly, I don’t  always choose to respect that particular instruction, and, if I were a  young activist in Egypt, I might happily eviscerate it from the rest of  the instructions. I’ll be dammed if I will not be attached to my fate, I  might think. But the rest, the rest I think is the marrow of the  Egyptian story over the last week.
A few years back, I spent a couple of weeks in Egypt, amongst some of  the most reasonable, intellectual, and welcoming citizens I’ve ever met  in any country. A Muslim driver helped me decorate his classic car with  balloons and drove me to the airport to fetch my parents, whom I had not  seen for months and who were traveling to join me for an Easter holiday. He held the other half of my sign that greeted them in a crowded  airport and later, when we spoke of politics and the temper of  international relations, he said “Muslim or Christian, we all worship the same God. We are so much the same. And you are welcome here.” By which I suppose I mean to say they have earned an esteemed spot in my heart.
The sophistications of Egypt’s political and civil rights situation  surely elude me, as they probably do most Westerners whether we realize  it or not. I wouldn’t begin to assert a judgment on where they were or  the rightness of where they are headed. All I mean to say is this: They  know what they are ready for and they are showing up to ask for it. I  will always believe that we are better for having more voices around the  fire. And it was a strange mix of conviction and honor to watch The  People of Egypt show up in a way we do not, maybe do not have to. It is  an honor to watch your truth stand up.

It’s an Honor to Watch Your Truth Stand Up

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Although many of us may not fully understand the political and social circumstances or ramifications of the demonstrations in Egypt, we’re heartened by the steadfastness and assured nature of the protesters. This magnificent post from Erica at beenthinking captures the sentiment I think many Americans are experiencing as we watch the protests from afar: 

“There are four things you must do in life:

Show up.
Speak the truth.
Do what you do with intensity.
And do not get attached to the results.”

One night almost two years ago, probably right before I most needed the advice, my friend Sally shared this Buddhist philosophy with me over a good beer. All morning, I’ve been following the developments in the Middle East with a sort of rapidly worsening infection of interest.

I heard a BBC correspondent on the ground in Cairo excitedly report that in two decades covering this region, this is the most noteworthy, remarkable development he has ever seen. Another reported that the protesters are ebullient. Ebullient. Think of the wonder of choosing such a deliberate, incongruous word to describe a demonstrating mass. On the radio, the journalists all testified to the surprising joyfulness of the crowd and even in the undeniable face of such uncertainty; this is something worth sitting down or rising up to consider.

So yes, who knows where it all goes from here. Who knows what becomes of their moment and government or whether their situation betters or not. But what is stunning me, in a sort of unexpectedly emotional way, is the incredible, wildly hopeful power of people who show up and speak their truth. What is remarkable is their power to ignite a revolution. To spark truth in the perceived dark that surrounds them, even across national borders.

I always struggle with that last line of this guidance. Frankly, I don’t always choose to respect that particular instruction, and, if I were a young activist in Egypt, I might happily eviscerate it from the rest of the instructions. I’ll be dammed if I will not be attached to my fate, I might think. But the rest, the rest I think is the marrow of the Egyptian story over the last week.

A few years back, I spent a couple of weeks in Egypt, amongst some of the most reasonable, intellectual, and welcoming citizens I’ve ever met in any country. A Muslim driver helped me decorate his classic car with balloons and drove me to the airport to fetch my parents, whom I had not seen for months and who were traveling to join me for an Easter holiday. He held the other half of my sign that greeted them in a crowded airport and later, when we spoke of politics and the temper of international relations, he said “Muslim or Christian, we all worship the same God. We are so much the same. And you are welcome here.” By which I suppose I mean to say they have earned an esteemed spot in my heart.

The sophistications of Egypt’s political and civil rights situation surely elude me, as they probably do most Westerners whether we realize it or not. I wouldn’t begin to assert a judgment on where they were or the rightness of where they are headed. All I mean to say is this: They know what they are ready for and they are showing up to ask for it. I will always believe that we are better for having more voices around the fire. And it was a strange mix of conviction and honor to watch The People of Egypt show up in a way we do not, maybe do not have to. It is an honor to watch your truth stand up.

Comments

The Harmonic Chaos of Icy Sidewalks with Rumi and John O’Donohue

by Charity Burns, guest contributor

In the wake of a recent blizzard, cars were buried in snow, curbs of intersections were submerged in a grimy soup, and sidewalks became paths of ice. One day I was rushing to work. The sidewalk appeared mostly clear, way more concrete than muddy slush. I passed a young woman in thermal boots that I thought was going much slower than necessary, and then, about half a block later, I slipped.

My mind had drifted, probably thinking about the coffee that I would have time to drink before work, when suddenly my thigh, then my torso, then my chin hit the pavement. It was a minor spill, more surreal than scary because it seemed to happen in slow motion. Nothing hurt, but as I slid and was pressing my mittened hands against the ice, trying to resist my fall, I almost laughed at my inability to stop myself. Then finally, the force of gravity propelling me ceased and I found myself kissing a Brooklyn sidewalk glazed with dirt and ice.

This experience reminded me of the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, whom I have never really liked. Perhaps his poem has never found the right translator, but I’ve always found Rumi snoozerific and a bit pedantic. Nevertheless, I have been drawn to Rumi’s ideas and beliefs.

As many people know, Rumi was part of a mystical sect of Islam that celebrated its faith through a choreographed dance of spinning in long robes, the dancers known as whirling dervishes. As Fatemeh Keshavarz made clear about the Persian poet, this dancing was symbolic of the perpetual spinning of the universe and the idea that “everything in the universe is quickened with the force of love.”

The spinning dancers represented a willingness to be in harmony with the wonderful and wondrous chaos of the world. Though I still wouldn’t consider myself a Rumi lover, we share an appreciation of just how complicated each day on this Earth is, so many restless electrons, neutrons, atoms. Add to all that chaos the complicating fact that every person is a discreet planet, each subjected to its own ever-changing weather system of emotions, blizzards, heat waves, and drizzle. Every day we face the wildness of our own human experience.

And some days I am not able to whirl through all the wildness with the grace of an atom, or a dervish. Some days, I fall on the concrete on the way to work at eight in the morning because I wasn’t paying attention.

John O’Donohue, a poet from the west coast of Ireland who passed away a couple years ago, said before his death, “The world is always larger and more intense and stranger than our best thought will ever reach.” Rumi would agree that the world is spinning more wildly than we could ever fathom, but the Persian poet might then add that we need not fear because, if we fall, wherever we fall, there is love. You can’t fall wrong.


Charity BurnsCharity Burns is an English instructor and poet living in Brooklyn, New York. Her poetry has been published in Smartish Pace, Madison Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and West Branch, and she blogs regularly at The Beauty Works Project.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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Sacred Conversations

by David Gushee, special contributor

Crucifix on the Klein MatterhornAt the heart of my Christian faith is the belief that each and every person I encounter is absolutely cherished by God. I believe every human being is ineffably sacred in God’s sight. This implies a moral responsibility on my part to do my very best to treat them accordingly. If God loves each person, followers of God’s way must love each person too.

This is a mystical vision. It is a mountaintop perspective. It is very hard to sustain it, especially in the vicious street fights of politics. And it is often very hard to see any evidence for it. But this belief is not really evidence-based. It is faith-based.

I am a Christian, born and raised in the Catholic Church before a teenage conversion to Protestant Evangelical faith. By now I find that both strands of my religious history are deeply interwoven and help to define who I am. I think that both of these strands, at their best, teach this vision of the equal and immeasurable worth of each human being. Catholic tradition, especially as articulated by the Vatican II documents and by Pope John Paul II, taught me a “consistent pro-life ethic.” Protestant evangelicalism, as exemplified in men such as Billy Graham, taught me that God so loved the world (each and every person in the world) that he gave his only son on the cross for our salvation. For my salvation!

I am also a Christian ethicist, a moral teacher, and writer. So inevitably my work brings me into occasions in which it is my responsibility and my opportunity to address hot-button issues like abortion, health care, war, torture, or gay rights.

Most conversations about these kinds of issues are profoundly unsatisfactory to me. Academic conversations tend to be highly technical, theoretical, and irrelevant to everyday life. Popular conversations tend to be angry and polemical, partisan and politicized. Neither type of conversation ever really feels very sacred to me. Academics are often scoring their tenure points while politicos are scoring their partisan points.

Over the years, I have tried to do something a little different when I engage difficult issues such as abortion. I try to play neither academic nor political games. I instead try to discern what it might mean to deal with the substance of the issue as if every person involved is sacred in God’s sight, and I likewise try to deal with my dialogue partners as if the same were true.

Frances Kissling Listens to David GusheeWhen I met Frances Kissling and dialogued publicly with her at the Princeton "Open Hearts, Open Minds" conference, I hope that this is the spirit that I brought to that conversation.

I saw in Frances and most of the pro-choice activists and thinkers at that meeting a serious concern for women in general, and women facing unwanted pregnancies in particular. I could tell that they were drawn into this issue because they had caught a vision of the suffering of women whose pregnancies create a crisis for them, and the even more intense crisis that this would be for them if they had no legal recourse to an abortion. Their fixed gaze on the needs and the suffering of women impressed me, and I respected it. Anyone who cares deeply about the suffering of other people is on the right track — because that is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for the sacred persons around us.

I do continue to think that our gaze on this issue must be at least bi-focal — on the suffering pregnant woman, and on the developing human life that she is carrying. I do sense that decades of defending the rights and needs of the pregnant woman have trained many in the pro-choice side to avert their eyes from the child. But I also recognize on the part of many pro-lifers the parallel averting of gaze away from the woman and her situation as she experiences it. Decades of advocacy in a polarized debate have caused both sides to miss the intertwined sacredness of woman and child. And it is certainly clear to me that the only way those whose gaze is fixed on the child will succeed in saving more of them is if they learn not only to look at the woman, but to love her.

This vision goes with me to other issues. I have been an advocate for the apparently astonishing view that no matter how much we want to prevent another terrorist attack that would destroy sacred human lives; this does not mean we are free to create a system that abuses suspected terrorists — because those swept up as suspected terrorists are also sacred human beings whom God loves. This view shapes my thinking about the right of all our nation’s children to have a good education, quality health care, and parents who love them. And it means that I refuse to go along with the contemptuous demonization of particular groups that sometimes sweeps us away — most recently exhibited in very disturbing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.

I find allies anywhere I encounter someone whose words and deeds show that they are operating on the basis of something like this vision. Often, sadly, these allies are not my fellow Christians, for sometimes the passionate commitment of my co-religionists to the positions they advocate causes them to forget their obligation to love even strangers and enemies. No, in public life, my favorites are those who surprise me with the tender and respectful way they encounter the sacred humanity of those around them. They give me hope.

About the images: (top) Atop the Klein Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland stands a giant wooden representation of Christ on the cross. A metal placard beneath is engraved with the same phrase in four languages: “Mehr Mensch sein.” “L’homme d’abord.” “Uomo prima di tutto.” “Be more human.” (photo: mightymightymatze/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

(second) Frances Kissling listens to the author at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words” conference at Princeton University in 2010.


David P. GusheeDavid P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the co-founder and board chair of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a columnist for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Associated Baptist Press, and a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Dr. Gushee also currently serves on the Church Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has published 12 books, including Kingdom Ethics, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Getting Marriage Right, and Only Human.

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The (Advent) Road Between “Already” and “Not Yet”

by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor

The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross.
—Rowan Williams, A Ray of Darkness

"A Stranger, The Second Advent"I’ve been reading Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Road this Advent, and am struck by some thematic parallels between this bleak book and these dark December days of longing and foreboding. The correlations are subtle, tenuous, even arguable, perhaps — and not intended, I’m confident, by the author himself. Maybe it’s more like a shared sensibilitity: Advent’s unflinching gaze at the trouble and pain to come, given clear-eyed expression in the ancient prophets’ warnings; the sober, spare narration of terrifying desolation in The Road; and the palpable urgency that informs and animates both.

Yet hope is wrested from the scattered wreckage. Advent’s apocalyptic warnings locate the strange mission of a strange Messiah who’s “winnowing fork is in his hand,” but whose own dying will undo forever the power of sin and death. The violence and despair of McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic landscape and the unspoken calamity that created it do not have the last word.

Hope and human goodness and a glimmer of divine grace seep through the cracks of the scorched, dead earth. “You shall fear disaster no more,” says the prophet Zephaniah in one of the appointed Advent texts. McCarthy’s nameless father and son seem to claim this foretelling for themselves as their savage, beautiful story comes to a close.

In Advent we walk a tightrope, taut (and fraught) with the tension of living between the times — between the “already” of the first Advent of God and the “not yet” of its completion. The Advent scriptures and liturgies and hymns bring this tension alive, teaching us, as the archbishop of Canterbury writes, “something of God’s own simultaneous ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to all religious aspiration and expectation.”

But tension — along with ambiguity, paradox, and mystery — are not what we want from our religion. Middle class Christian piety pays a kind of lip service to Advent (the wreath is a nice touch, we think), but darkness, foreboding, “unquenchable fire”? Please. We are on our way to the manger, for heaven’s sake. The tree’s been up for two weeks. You’re scaring the children with all this talk of vipers and the wrath to come.

But Advent asks us to see and speak truthfully, to reckon honestly with our troubled times, to share in the righteous anger of a God who will, as the gospel of Matthew says, “decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

We make the journey through Advent a bit like travelers on an unknown road, but not as those without hope. For in the fullness of time the desert will bloom and rejoice, our weeping will turn to joy, and all flesh, we pray with fervent Advent longing, shall see it together.

Image caption: “A Stranger, The Second Advent” (photo: cawa/Flickr, used under its Creative Commons license)


Debra Dean Murphy

Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

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