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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.

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Children Help Us Embrace the Mystery

by Krista Tippett, host

The notion of God as father is a metaphor, of course, like much religious language. It is necessary approximation and analogy. When I became a mother myself, I was stunned at how little we have filled this metaphor with meaning from the real experience of parenting. The Heavenly Father of my childhood was implacable, inscrutable, all-powerful. But to become a parent in reality is to enter a state of extreme vulnerability. “To become a father,” the French theologian Louis Evely aptly put it, “is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”

Raising a new human being in this world is a monumental spiritual task, yet we so rarely call it that. This does not become easier when, at some point, our offspring become little theologians and philosophers. They begin to ask huge questions about life and the universe — basic questions about how we got here and where God lives and why people die and why people hurt each other and what it means to be good and to be happy. These questions are the building blocks of religion and ethics. We refine them all of our lives, but at heart they remain the same. What changes is our ability to articulate and act on them.

Pure JoyAs parents, we want to support this part of our children’s natures. With other mundane aspects of parenting — like how to help them sleep, or how to feed them, or how to teach them to read — we know that we need help. We seek maps, books, and counselors. But when it comes to these personal, existential questions of meaning, we often feel that we should intuitively have the answers. In my own life, and as I’ve spoken with different people across the country these past years, the spirituality of parenting is often a source of anxiety. It provokes a feeling of inadequacy. This is heightened in our age by the fact that so many of us are less connected to specific religious traditions and institutions than the generations that preceded us. And many of us inherit a mix of spiritual practices in our own histories, marriages, and extended families.

As we prepared to create our show titled "The Spirituality of Parenting," we put out a call for the reflections and questions of our listeners and newsletter subscribers. Many, many parents wrote in, as well as grandparents and ministers and teachers. You can hear some of their voices and stories, and see their pictures, on our website. Each contribution has been wonderful to read. The breadth of spiritual searching and the diversity of spiritual moorings among them is startling, reflecting the plurality of the culture we inhabit. And more than a few who are deeply rooted in a particular tradition stressed that even they need guidance on how to teach and model a vocabulary of words and practice for exploring religion and meaning and ethics as they share ordinary life with the children they love.

I don’t believe I could have found a better conversation partner than Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her ideas have kept me pondering, and I’m delighted to send them out into the world. She encourages us to begin with what we know, and also to let our children lead us on a new journey of questioning and learning. We can seek out maps and books and counselors on this part of their development too, and we should. She also urges parents to explore the place they come from, the communities or traditions in their family and background, even if they have left it behind at another stage in life. Don’t let those who modeled the worst of your faith, she adds, define that faith for you. Understand yourself as an ancestor to the next generation, as part of tradition’s unfolding story.

Most of all, we should attend to our children’s musings about life’s wonders and injustices, their grief at the death of a pet or a loved one, their response to a homeless person encountered on the street. It is all right not to have answers for their large moral and existential questions. Unlike adults, children are not afraid of mystery. But they do need us to help them develop vocabularies and ways of living to keep those questions alive and growing. They need to hear how we think about large questions of meaning, and about what experience has taught us. They need to hear our questions and our stories. Stories are the vocabulary of theology for children. They also crave and will use ritual and routine, and we can form these from daily life and commonplace experiences.

I return to the insight I began with — that children can make the essence of religion come alive. They may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. “Children open windows for us,” Sandy Sasso says, “or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open part of our life that maybe has been dormant for a long time.” The rest is mystery, and our children will help us embrace that more joyfully too.

(photo: Renata Baião/Flickr)

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And, then, I later read ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle, and it tells you to find a shaft of sunlight and sit in it every day. So my boyfriend was, like, following Eckhart Tolle’s weird sunlight advice and finding it. And then he ended up using ‘The Power of Now’ to break up with me. So, like, it had turned against me.
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—Starlee Kine, from her story “Radical Honesty” (mp3, 19:59) on The Moth podcast.

We’ve received countless stories about the positive impact of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings on people’s lives. I had to smile when I heard this humorous story from a person who was on the receiving end of his guiding principles. If you work on SOF long enough, you hear the most surprising references to all types of material and people on the program!

Trent Gilliss, online editor

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Acting on a Dream

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

There is much to cherish in the latest contribution to the The New York Times’ Modern Love column. And, even as I’m writing this, I’m struggling to commit to a single idea or quote from Kim Barnes’ "That Delicate Membrane, the Heart."

The HeartMy first inclination was to publish this “quote post”:

"At the end of our four-hour conversation, he said, ‘Do I want you to publish this book? No, I don’t. Do I think that you should? Yes, I do.’ It was an incredible gift, a moment of grace I had not foreseen."

At first glance, these two sentences are the sweet hook — gripping and intimate, paradoxical and human. You see, I gravitate toward deeply flawed characters who are difficult and unwieldy. Characters who are hard to like, impenetrable, with a complexity and depth that surfaces in rare moments of redemption.

But, it’s the following passage about Barnes’ father that reminded me of our mission here, that life-altering moments are often informed through faith and a conviction and willingness to submit to that faith. The lesson and true empathy can be learned in the lead-up to these revealing moments:

"We were living in the woods he loved, in the small, isolated community where he worked as a logger and where our family was deeply involved in Pentecostal fundamentalism. As surely as we believed in God and his Heavenly Host, we believed in Lucifer and his legion.

It was during a time of conflict in the congregation that my father was awakened one night by the suddenly cooling air. What he saw in the doorway, he later claimed, was a demon: darkly cloaked, green eyes gleaming, filling the room with its stench.

It was my father’s violent trembling that woke my mother, his quest for enlightenment that led him to lock himself in our makeshift tool shed, fasting and praying, until he heard the voice of God telling him we must leave the woods and never return. And so we did.”

Her father’s decision to move, based on a dream, lays the groundwork for all the events to come and the development of their relationship.

This narrative reminds me of a conversation Krista had with Mel Robeck in a hotel room in downtown Los Angeles a few years ago. He’s a practicing Pentecostal and church historian who told his own version of a vision that came to him in the night:

Prof. Robeck: Well, at that particular time, I had been elected president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies. It was in 1982. And I was really struggling with what to talk about. I was concerned about a particular split between an older group and a younger group of scholars and how they didn’t value one another. And I had been praying and asking God, “Please help me to give a word that will bring some sense of healing in this rift within the society.” And, you know, I was awakened in the middle of the night with Jesus standing at the end of my bed saying to me, “Mel, I want you to talk about ecumenism.” And I said, you know, “Lord, I …

Ms. Tippett: Which is reaching out to other churches.

Prof. Robeck: Yeah. I don’t know anything about this and how is this relevant? You know, I went back to sleep. And He woke me up again with the same words on the same night, saying, “I want you to speak about ecumenism.” And I said, “Lord, you know what our bylaws say. Here I am in the Assemblies of God, and I’m going to get in trouble if I do what You’re asking me to do.” And I went back to sleep. And He woke me up a third time with the same words. And I finally thought, you know what? Here I call myself a minister of the gospel, and if Jesus is asking me to do something, I’d better do it. I mean, this is what I’m supposed to do, huh? And so I said, “Yes.” And I went back to sleep.

I witnessed this exchange in the hotel room and remembering feeling slightly uncomfortable. Why? Mostly my own failings. Being trained to distrust unverifiable narratives like this with supernatural elements, dismiss them as crazy talk.

But we had an editorial discussion about including this story, a deliberation that has had a tremendous impact on me as a professional journalist and a caring being. In this context, it doesn’t matter whether I can verify his story or whether I even believe it to be true. What matters is that Mel Robeck had this experience. Karen Barnes’ father had his experience. And their unique visions were catalysts that prompted them to act, to move forward in a new direction.

These men acted on their instincts and a willingness to step into the breach of the unknown. They set aside a life of certainty and proceeded without a road map, without the knowledge that things would get better, but with hope that circumstances would change. Those are traits I can admire.

(illustration: Christopher Silas Neal/NYT)

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"Every Single One of Us Has a Story to Tell…" Trent Gilliss, online editor
This “still” from Daniel Clowes not-yet-published (expected launch date: May 2010) graphic novel, Wilson, resonated deeply with my Friday morning conversation with Kate and Melinda (director of digital media for APM) during my annual performance review. We discussed the importance of giving voice to more people’s stories and the need for physically connecting with others through the focusing lens of SOF.
Oh, and if you read The New Yorker, Clowes’ artwork may look familiar to you. As Drawn & Quarterly describes the book:

"In WILSON, Clowes creates a thoroughly engaging, complex and fascinating portrait of the modern egoist-outspoken and oblivious to those around him, but who sincerely wants to find his place in the world. Working in a single-page gag format and drawn in a spectrum of styles, the cartoonist of Ghost World, Ice Haven and David Boring gives us his funniest and most deeply affecting novel to date.”

(Thanks for the heads up Matthew Buchanan.)

"Every Single One of Us Has a Story to Tell…"
Trent Gilliss, online editor

This “still” from Daniel Clowes not-yet-published (expected launch date: May 2010) graphic novel, Wilson, resonated deeply with my Friday morning conversation with Kate and Melinda (director of digital media for APM) during my annual performance review. We discussed the importance of giving voice to more people’s stories and the need for physically connecting with others through the focusing lens of SOF.

Oh, and if you read The New Yorker, Clowes’ artwork may look familiar to you. As Drawn & Quarterly describes the book:

"In WILSON, Clowes creates a thoroughly engaging, complex and fascinating portrait of the modern egoist-outspoken and oblivious to those around him, but who sincerely wants to find his place in the world. Working in a single-page gag format and drawn in a spectrum of styles, the cartoonist of Ghost World, Ice Haven and David Boring gives us his funniest and most deeply affecting novel to date.”

(Thanks for the heads up Matthew Buchanan.)

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The Gospel According to Battlestar Galactica
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer

Ever since Krista got me hooked on Battlestar Galactica a couple of years ago, I have noticed very few episodes that didn’t offer some not-so-subtle references to Judeo-Christian theological influences. There are countless examples throughout the program’s four seasons: a “chosen” or select group of survivors travelling great distances trying to find the prophesied “home”; the twelve tribes of mankind; transitioning from pantheism to monotheism, etc. But one of the more blatant is the refrain at the end of most speeches in BSG, “So say we all” — basically serving the same function when a congregation says “Amen” after a part of a church liturgy. And hearing the pantheistic human characters say “Gods damn it” still catches me off guard.

In this week’s program, "TV and Parables of our Time," USC professor Diane Winston notes how the writers of BSG would also weave issues found in today’s real-life news into their story lines. She cites the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib as one example. Winston goes on to suggest that maybe we need good storytelling in order to process the events happening in our world, and that trying to understand the complexity of these events only through news media may not be enough.

As someone who finds the Bible in desperate need of an editor, I wonder if I would find the biblical stories more compelling if they had spaceships and cool sound effects and thrilling scores. Would I find the messages more relevant? I don’t know. It does makes me wonder if these modern narratives like Battlestar Galactica need to have familiar touch points, such as religious rituals and themes that we grew up with, in order to make a space-based story somehow more accessible to our terrestrial lives. Or do they just borrow from great stories, many of which can be found in religious texts? What do you think?

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Weaving Personal Narrative and Others’ Stories
Eboo Patel, Guest Contributor

Meeting Laurie Patton reminded me of a basic truism about life: the best storytellers are also the best listeners. Listening in a way that evokes other peoples’ stories is, after all, how storytellers begin the process of collecting the pieces that they then weave together into the narratives they turn around and offer the world.

I got a glimpse into professor Patton’s gifts for listening on a recent trip to Atlanta. She moderated a panel with Andrew Young and myself, artfully integrating Reverend Young’s story as a senior African-American Christian leader involved in the civil rights movement and my story as a young American Muslim building a global interfaith youth movement.

Two days later, I caught up with Laurie again and convinced her to share some of her own pioneering story — as one of the first female chairs of a major Religion department, as a person who chose to convert to Judaism, as one of the most renowned scholars of Indian religions in America, as a poet and institution builder, and as a person who thinks the shortest distance between two people is — as story.

Watch the video, and take a listen for yourself.

Eboo Patel appeared on SOF as a guest in "Religious Passion, Pluralism, and the Young." He’s also the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core, a contributor to the Washington Post’s "On Faith" blog, and author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

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