Religious graduation speech in Macon raises issues over separation of church and state

The Macon County School system has changed its tune on the controversial preacher who delivered an overtly religious speech at Nantahala School’s June graduation ceremony.

Superintendent Dan Brigman initially defended the content of the speech in an article published in The Smoky Mountain News, but after receiving a complaint from the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, Brigman said “circumstances prevented a proper vetting” of the Nantahala graduation speaker.

Brigman said the school system “will ensure that future graduation speakers refrain from religious speech.”

In an Aug. 4 letter responding to the foundation’s complain, Brigman didn’t expressly say that the school had erred, but implied that the vetting process had failed when the Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart was picked as the commencement speaker.

Stewart offered prayers at the graduation and delivered a sermon that involved wrapping a student volunteer in ropes to demonstrate the hold of the devil.

Rebecca Markert, attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said she sent a letter to the school system after a local resident contacted the foundation with concerns.

Her letter, sent more than a month prior to Brigman’s response, asked that the school system take “immediate steps to ensure that religious ritual and proselytizing” stay out of graduations in the future.

In his response, Brigman defended the school system, saying that it didn’t and wouldn’t intentionally schedule a prayer or sermon. Markert, however, pointed out that the school should’ve known Stewart’s intent.

“Not only should the district have realized Stewart was apt to view the speaking engagement as a carte blanche invitation to abuse the situation to proselytize to a captive audience, but the district is on record endorsing his sermon,” said Markert’s letter. “Your very own public statements about the sermon expressed no disapproval.”

Indeed, Brigman told The Smoky Mountian News and other media outlets that he saw no problem with Stewart, as he had been chosen by the graduating students.

“It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions,” Brigman told The Smoky Mountain News after the graduation.

Student-led prayer is allowed in schools, but the law prohibits outside speakers or school-sponsored events from including religious elements such as prayers, sermons or Biblical object lessons.

Markert said this is a situation she sees quite often. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national membership organization with chapters around the country. It’s dedicated to preserving the separation of church and state.

“We cover a wide range of state-church violations,” said Markert. “The biggest complaints we receive are about religion in schools.”

As the staff attorney, Markert acts on those complaints, conducting background investigations and then sending what are essentially cease-and-desist letters and pushing issues into court when necessary.

She sends out between 10 and 20 letters a week, and mostly what she’s looking for in return are letters such as Brigman’s: a mea culpa of some sort and promise of better future behavior.

Mostly, she said, that’s what she gets, especially in school cases, because the law is so clear.

“I think there’s been rare occasions where we haven’t heard back and in those instances we have talked to the plaintiffs to see if they’re interested in suing. But really, it rarely every happens,” said Markert.

The school system’s response signals, perhaps, that they were aware of such a legal threat.

“Macon County Schools is committed to protecting the rights of its students, parents and teachers,” Brigman wrote in the letter. “We do employ a process to prevent the presentation of inappropriate materials to our students.”

This time around, Brigman referred all questions on the issue to the school system’s lawyer, John Henning. Henning said that the school system’s policy was not at fault, but it wasn’t exactly followed in this situation.

“The process that we would follow now is that presentations or materials that will be presented need to be reviewed by the principal and the principal will make a determination,” said Henning. Nantahala School Principal Robbie Newton died of cancer before the end of last school year, and the duty never fell to anyone else.

Henning, however, said the school system received no complaints from students or residents, but one other letter from a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Bible reading makes a comeback

In an out-of-the-way room on the ground floor, seven congregants of Longs Chapel United Methodist Church in Lake Junaluska gather around two beat-up tables. It’s Sunday School, a staple of Protestant church life, and there are thousands of groups just like it meeting around the country right now.

The room, even, is like any other Sunday School room. Battered rocking chair, metal folding chairs, a nondescript bookshelf or two.

The goal, though, is different.

They’re here trying to do something that few Americans have done: read the Bible — the whole thing, Old and New testaments — in 90 days.

Today, the topic is Genesis and parts of Exodus, and it’s a little controversial even among this group of professing Christians, many longtime churchgoers.

“I don’t like all the animal sacrifices,” says Kim Mullholland, a mother and full-time speech therapist who says she’s been in church her whole life. “It’s something that’s innocent, that’s what bothers me.”

Andrew Cooper also has some reservations. He’s much older than Mulholland, but is himself reading through the entire book for the first time.

“I’ve got a lot of questions now about this same God,” says Cooper. “I don’t know about all that.”

There isn’t much reliable data to show how many Americans have ever gotten from Genesis to the last page of Revelation. But there is a plethora of studies that tell us that, on the whole, even those who say they’re Christians are ignorant of most religious texts, the Bible included.

A 2007 Gallup poll showed that 60 percent of Americans don’t know who gave the Sermon on the Mount. Roughly the same number couldn’t name all four gospels.

A 2010 study by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly half had never heard of Ramadan and 61 percent couldn’t identify the Biblical character Job.

Among Christian subgroups, the stats weren’t much higher, even for the most basic doctrinal questions.

That, says Teressa Spencer, is the whole point of her church’s Bible in 90 Days initiative.

Spencer is director of ministries at Longs Chapel, and she’s been trying to get a read-the-Bible program going there for years.

“It just became really obvious to me how many people in worship spaces had not read the Bible,” said Spencer. And after enough talking about it, one pastor finally gave her a hand, finding a curriculum from Bible-publishing giant Zondervan.

It’s called, aptly enough, The Bible in 90 Days, and the Bible it’s using looks much more like a hardback self-help book than Bible.

It’s meant to be that way, says Ted Cooper. He is the guy who started the program by simply reading through the Bible in 1999. It wasn’t quite a literary exercise, but it was close.

Cooper was agnostic, and decided to read the Bible as a matter of interest, not devotion. So he got a large-print Bible and started on page one.

“I didn’t know that you weren’t supposed to read the Bible just like any other book,” says Cooper. “I didn’t know that if you were going to try to do that you were supposed to do that over a long period of time.”

Back in the Sunday School room, that’s one of the obstacles that these regular churchgoers are tripping over. Though they study the Bible, they do know that few read through it like a novel. And most Bibles aren’t as reader friendly as novels, either, with their leaf-thin pages, copious footnotes and inches-thick bindings.

“Most people that try to read through the Bible bog down in Leviticus and lose it. Don’t be one of them,” says the smiling speaker on the study video that accompanies the course.

In much of his publicity material, Cooper highlights a stat from a 2007 study that says 72 percent of Americans would like to read the entire Bible some time in their lives.

But the problem many run into when trying is that, though they’ve long self-identified as Christians, what they find in a straight read of the Bible is at the very least unexpected and probably either loathsome or tiresome.

“I started reading and I was just appalled at what was in it,” says Cooper of his first read through. “It just had all these rapes and murders and disembowelments.”

He used to come home, he says, and read particularly shocking passages to his wife, both laughing in disbelief.

It did change his life, though. He changed from agnostic to Christian and decided to help other people read the good book, not necessarily with an eye towards conversion, but just because it’s a good idea.

“We do not say,‘Oh gosh, if you don’t come out of this thing as a believer, then you’ve failed,’” says Cooper. “Our goal is to help people read it, all of it, and we kind of think God can do the big stuff.”

Personal religious convictions aside, a survey of university professors across the ideological spectrum found that knowing the Bible is educationally helpful.

“I can only say that if a student doesn’t know any Bible literature, he or she will simply not understand whole elements of Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth. One could go on and on,” said Robert Kiely, a Harvard English professor, in the study by the Bible Literacy Project.

The numbers from that study showed that 92 percent of his colleagues agreed, which makes sense, given even a cursory look at art and literature.

Take Absalom, a minor character from the Old Testament. He murdered his half-brother, attempted to usurp his father’s throne and was subsequently killed when his own hair hung him in a tree. He appears for a few chapters in 2 Samuel, yet there are references to him in poetry, music, art and even William Faulkner used the allegorical theme of son revolting against father in his seminal Southern Gothic novel, Absalom! Absalom!

The utter lack of biblical knowledge is somewhat surprising, given that the Bible is the No. 1 bestselling book of the year. Every year.

Selling the Bible is a big business — Thomas Nelson, one of the largest Bible producers, was sold for $473 million in 2006.

Reading it, it seems, isn’t.

Cooper, however, has had success in every state and several countries largely, he thinks, because his program turned the Bible into a book again.

Ninety days, he says, is doable. There’s a light at the end of that tunnel. If you take a year to read any book, for most people, failure is almost a foregone conclusion.

The other key to the program’s success is doing it with other people. Because, Cooper says, the Bible is actually a fairly shocking book.

“Somewhere between 65 and 80 percent of our typical groups have read not very much of the Bible before they do this. Those people are encountering a God that they don’t know, and in many respects they don’t want to know. It’s disturbing to people,” says Cooper. “So if they don’t have anybody to talk with and process with, if you don’t get to share those emotions, either you quit or you feel defeated.”

So, like Mulholland and Cooper and their compatriots, readers get together. They talk about it.

When the 90 days concludes, Cooper says most people have made it through the entire Bible.

“We don’t have to convince people that they want to do this,” says Cooper. “We just have to convince them that they can do it.”

Lake Junaluska balances heritage, progress

Trevor Hudson has never liked the hymn “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.”

The world behind me, the cross before me, he says, doesn’t make much sense. Isn’t Christianity about loving the world, not turning your back on them?

Come to mention it, he’s not in love with “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus,” either. Things of earth shall grow strangely dim? But isn’t Jesus supposed to bring the world and its needs into sharper focus?

“It’s blasphemy,” he says of the historic hymns, in an impassioned South African accent.

He’s saying it from the main stage at Stuart Auditorium perched on the edge of Lake Junaluska. His proclamation echoes off the soaring rafters and curving walls of the century-old auditorium, followed by a powerful silence.

Did he just say he hates “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus?” Pins dropping would resound in the silence, before Hudson continues, beseeching the crowd to listen to the world instead of mentally dimming it.

His message might seem unorthodox, but he is not the first to preach global-mindedness from that pulpit, and Lake Junaluska Assembly’s leadership hopes he won’t be the last.

Hudson came to the assembly’s oldest stage this month as part of the summer worship series. It’s a historic tradition that has long brought storied preachers and evangelists to the renowned Methodist conference center in Haywood County.

Actually, visiting preachers have been a part of the history of the place since its inception.

“Of course if you go back in the history — almost since the very beginning in 1913 — they’ve had different labels for the series and services that they had, but there were various pastors coming in from the get go,” says Bill Lowry, resident historian at Lake Junaluska and author of the book The Antechamber of Heaven, a History of Lake Junaluska Assembly.

Through the decades, the assembly has played host to famous clergymen such as Billy Graham and a slew of well-known British preachers.

From the beginning, the services were always well-attended, especially the summer meetings.

“The opening service, which took place in June of 1913, had approximately 4,000 people show up,” says Lowry, which was, he said, thanks in part to the friendly relationship the conference center shared with the local community.

Churches and businesses would get the news about summer preachers, spreading it along their built-in networks, and people came.

From the outset, says Lowry, the focus was worldwide.

“There was a very strong missionary emphasis on the grounds to begin with,” he says. “The very first event was a missionary conference, there were speakers there from China and other countries.”

That outlook is one of the solid foundations the leaders of today’s Lake Junaluska are hoping to build and grow the worship series on in the future.

Because the church is changing, and to stay alive, the assembly has to follow suit.

“I think our largest challenge is to reach a younger community,” says Roger Dowdy, the ministry director. It’s his job to keep things like the summer worship series relevant, and that’s sometimes a challenge — to serve and please the aging group that has long been the pillar of support and simultaneously attract a younger audience that will keep it alive.

“The relevance is by far the most important thing,” says Dowdy. “Preaching is changing in the church, it has become more free from the pulpit, it has become more narrative, whether it’s the preacher’s story or the church story. People want dynamic preaching.”

That’s a truth that can be seen across denominations in the Protestant church writ large in America, from the rise of the house church to the popularity of celebrity pastors and megachurches that focus and rely on the charisma of their leaders.

“It’s this incredible balance that we have to walk,” says Lake Junaluska Executive Director Jack Ewing. “We absolutely have to find ways to attract younger people so that this can continue going forward into the future.”

Ewing came to this job only a few months ago, with the charge and vision for continuing to usher Lake Junaluska into the modern church era.

With things like the summer worship series, the challenge is staying relevant and also true to the rich history of tradition the practice stands on.

Even before Lake Junaluska Assembly encamped on the lake’s shore almost 100 years ago, the tradition of traveling Methodists was already well established in Haywood County.

There are accounts of Methodist preachers stopping to give sermons here in the early 19th century. Many of their names are scrawled on the walls of the third floor chapel in the historic Shook House in Clyde, where many visiting pastors known as circuit riders made their pulpit pitches.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and the tradition hasn’t dimmed, but the strength of the church in society seems to be fading.

That truth isn’t lost on Ewing, who speaks of lost generations that don’t show up to the summer sermons like they did in decades past.

A 2010 Gallup poll found that 16 percent of Americans claim no specific religious identity. It was next to nothing in 1950. Another found that 70 percent of Americans told pollsters they believe religion is losing influence on American life.

Dowdy and Ewing know this is what they have to contend with.

“We will attempt to straddle this line between our traditional population base at the same time as being relevant to new generations,” said Ewing. “The reality is, what worship will look like in Stuart Auditorium 10 years from now, we don’t really know. But it isn’t about just being faithful to a tradition. We need to be faithful to God, not faithful to our traditions.”


Lake Junaluska Assembly Summer Worship schedule

All services begin at 10:45 a.m. in Stuart Auditorium at Lake Junaluska Assembly, unless otherwise noted.

• Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray - July 17

• Rev. Jeremy Troxler - July 24

• Rev. Mike Slaughter (8:30 a.m.) - July 31

• Rev. Grace Imathiu - July 31

• Rev. Shane Bishop - August 7

• Dr. Leonard Sweet - August 14

Cowboy preacher delivers maverick graduation speech

Graduation ceremonies are, by their nature, boring. The bookend of an educational phase is supposed to be a solemn occasion, launching you into the world with the gravity of education behind you. That’s how they’re designed.

And, by and large, most graduation speeches are the same. Not dissimilar to Ben Stein’s signature performance in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” — toneless uninspired droning — it may actually a decent speech, but its pleasant advice quickly fades into the background. It’s a graduation speech. No one remembers it. That’s how they’re designed. Most of the time.

The Nantahala School’s nine-member graduating class of 2011 probably won’t forget their commencement speaker, though.

The school is small — its senior class not even large enough to populate a soccer team — and tucked into a remote corner of Macon County, perched on a winding road that snakes up the mountainous regions of the Upper Nantahala River.

When asked who they wanted to speak at their graduation, they chose Rev. Daniel “Cowboy” Stewart.

He’s the pastor of a small Baptist church in nearby Robbinsville.

Stewart gave a rousing sermon, in which he brought a volunteer on stage, bound them in numerous ropes until they couldn’t move and then placed a bag over their head. It was an object lesson illustrating the prowess of the devil at prowling like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

“The devil is out to destroy you, to tie you up. These people who took drugs, overdosed and died didn’t mean to. They got tied up,” said Stewart, according to an article in the Andrews Journal.

The roaring lion bit was a reference to the Biblical book of 1 Peter, and Stewart’s companion lesson was, by most definitions, memorable.

But it was also, by the Supreme Court’s definition, illegal.

“The courts have been very clear that public schools are places where events must be neutral towards religion,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center. “The courts have been stricter in applying the establishment clause of the First Amendment to public schools because this is a captive audience of impressionable children, of young people.”

That would be the clause commonly known as separation of church and state, and the courts have long erred on the side of keeping school-sponsored religious messages out of public schools, said Haynes.

Dan Brigman is the superintendent for the Macon County School District, and as part of his job, goes to all the graduations in the district. He gave out diplomas at Nantahala.

“It wasn’t a revival, but he had some strong encouraging words for the kids to make good decisions,” said Brigman. He conceded that describing the scene might sound strange, but being there, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

As for the First Amendment issue? Brigman doesn’t see one.

“The kids get to choose who the speakers are year by year,” said Brigman, and because Stewart was chosen by the students, he didn’t see a constitutional conflict inherent in the sermon.

And it was a sermon. According to attendees of the ceremony, Stewart himself called his presentation a sermon.

But according to Haynes, students selecting the pastor to pontificate doesn’t absolve the school of constitutional responsibility.

“The end result was the same, that the school was promoting religion, it was unconstitutional. Those kind of attempts to get around the First Amendment don’t work,” said Haynes. “The students can’t vote up or down the First Amendment; it isn’t about how many people are in favor of violating religious freedom.”

He pointed to an illustrious First Amendment opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — “we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”

Nantahala isn’t the only school that’s had brushes with godly graduation speeches. Over the last few years, valedictorians in Montana, New Hampshire, Nevada and elsewhere have been muzzled or censored for promoting religion in their graduation speeches.

A judge in Connecticut ruled in favor of a school district there that pulled a public school’s graduation ceremony from a church.

The message from the judiciary has been that religion and school-sponsored events don’t mix.

Some, said Henry, say students are legally allowed to speak on religion at graduation in the same way that they can pray in their own classrooms or hold student-led religious events like See You At The Pole.

But outside speakers don’t get that privilege.

Like Brigman, Macon County School Board Chair Thomas Cabe said he wasn’t concerned by the presentation.

“I didn’t really see any problem with it,” said Cabe. “I’m not super religious, but I‘m sure that those people over there wanted it and I‘m sure that if it’d been any religion it would’ve worked.”

Brigman and Cabe didn’t know if the school had a vetting process for the speaker, if anyone had a look at his remarks before he took the stage.

Brigman said he’d never given such a once-over to a speaker in his time as superintendent.

Other schools in the region aren’t running into the same problem, but that’s largely because most don’t have outside speakers to begin with.

Macon County’s other high schools — Highlands High, Franklin High, Macon Early College and Union Academy — all had non-student speakers, but they were benign secular appointments; a retiring educator, a local businessman, a watercolor artist and the superintendent himself.

Haywood and Swain counties both had only student speakers at their high schools, which sidesteps the potential First Amendment land mine.

It’s not like controversial graduation speakers are a new phenomenon, though. Last year, a Philadelphia school tapped Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback recently incarcerated for dog fighting, to grace their ceremony, causing a small contretemps.

But usually such choices are confined to colleges and universities, where the money to afford anyone worthy of controversy is more readily available. And often it’s their presence that causes a stir, not their remarks.

It should be said, too, that Stewart’s remarks, while allegedly at odds with the Constitution, haven’t really caused a stir in Nantahala.

Brigman said his office has fielded no calls on the issue. The nearby Andrews Journal ran a story on the ceremony and an editorial denouncing Stewart’s choice to use it a platform for a sermon, but the responses those garnered in letters to the editor and Facebook comments were mostly in support of Stewart. And mostly from Robbinsville, where Stewart pastors Cedar Cliff Baptist Church.

“Nantahala graduates decided who to speak so allow them their choice without bashing their choice,” said one Graham County commenter, Tracy Shockley.

But on the whole, Nantahalans themselves have been publicly quiet on the brouhaha.

Haynes’ point, however, remains. Constitutionality isn’t up for a vote.

And, he says, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing environment.

“What’s missing from a lot of conversations in school districts is how many ways religion can come into public schools in an appropriate way,” said Haynes. “It isn’t either we keep it all out or we find ways to promote religion. Those two choices are false choices and unconstitutional choices. There is a better way.”

Daniel Stewart could not be reached for comment.

Spiritual community: A matter of being part of something greater

Plink plink plink.

A moment of silence.

Again – plink plink plink.

It’s 6 a.m. and the sky is still unlit, the color of chalky charcoal. But in a corner,  a small orange light is on a steady, metronomic blink, flaring and fading at half-second intervals, indicating that there are three e-mails and two texts and another four calendar alerts vying for attention.

Ding dong.

It’s the open laptop on the desk, declaring to the room at large that it’s 6 a.m. and its own ceaseless Web-trawls have gleaned more e-mails, more tweets, a few new blog posts.

Welcome to the 21st century, where every day is filled from open to close with a multitude of technological tethers that tie us, Gulliver-like, to our phones, computers and tablets. If we haven’t received an e-mail by noon, we suspect system malfunctions. We feel out-of-touch and somehow exposed if stripped of cell phone or PDA.

In a world that is increasingly interconnected, a virtual bazaar of non-stop information blasts, the ancient practice of spiritual devotion can begin to seem out-of-place, a reverse anachronism. We value the new and innovative and original, and juxtaposing that against quietude and reflection that are the hallmarks of spiritual development can seem nigh upon impossible.

But now, during Easter, what was once revered as a time of spiritual reflection is now another instance of busy-ness in the extreme. The children need to get Easter baskets and join 1,000 other kids to pick up eggs in public spaces. There need to be festivals. And hats. And runs. And chocolate. And cookie-decorating experiences. Angry Birds has even released a special Easter version, so you can spend your weekend slinging wingless birds at Easter-themed pigs on your iPad, if that’s your thing.


A moment to breathe

So is there value in clearing through the bursting spring schedule to make a space for spiritual development?

Scott Holmquist believes the answer is yes.

He’s the executive director of the Billy Graham Training Center at the Cove, a retreat near Asheville whose mission is to promote spiritual growth and retreat.

“It’s like the difference between going to a regular movie and a 3-D movie,” says Holmquist.

Sure, a 2-D movie is decent, but it sort of pales in comparison to the wonders of three dimensions, popping out at you from unexpected angles. And while the spectacle of modern life is wonderful, it can limit how we interact with our own third dimension, the spirit, the 3-D glasses of personal growth.

“I’m so glad to be in the 21st century,” says Holmquist, “but those things that are wonderful can keep us from stopping, from taking a deep breath.”


A faith community

The ancient Sufi poet Rumi advised his students to “close both eyes to see with the other eye.” He was an Islamic Persian mystic who lived in the 13th century, and although that might usually qualify him for inclusion in the prudes-of-the-middle-ages category, the poet was actually an ardent believer in building spiritual life on love and devotion to God and others. Much of eastern Islamic music is built on the foundation he laid.

And ringing true eight centuries later, spiritual leaders from a plethora of faith backgrounds echo Rumi’s thoughts: spirituality in a modern world needs discipline, but more importantly it needs community.

The Rev. Michael Hudson is an Episcopal priest who leads St. David’s in Cullowhee. He says that, even after 60 years of life, he still sees the spiritual world as a mystery, and a good one. To him, it’s almost impossible for most people to experience that mystery alone.

“I think for 99.9 percent of us, it’s absolutely necessary to do that,” says Hudson of joining in a spiritual community. “I think we are diminished if we don’t do that.”

Heather Murray Elkins says much the same thing. She’s a pastor and professor and has also been a poet, a teacher at a bi-lingual Navajo school and an instructor in South Korea. And a truck stop chaplain. Next, she’ll be part of a spiritual growth retreat held in June at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a Methodist conclave in Haywood County.

Elkins’ seminars attract people from around the continent to talk and debate liturgy, and she agrees with Hudson that community is key, not only to sticking it out on the sometimes-arduous spiritual road, but to getting to that spiritual road in the first place. Like Rumi, Elkins sees value in closing physical eyes to open spiritual ones, but in this culture, it’s challenging to go it alone.

“In a culture where time is money, we just keep going faster and faster and faster, so I teach students to try to tell time differently,” says Elkins “How you go about doing that are little acts of resistance. You have to do it with some kind of community. You can’t keep holy time by yourself.”

Elkins gives the example of Orthodox Jews as impeccable holy timekeepers, holding one another strictly to observances of Shabbat, where all of the distractions and responsibilities that life necessitates are taken forcibly from the equation.

“They agreed to protect each other’s time,” says Elkins, and without that protection, holy time falls by the wayside in deference to the frenetic pace of the world clock.

She holds in low esteem the idea that spiritual life can be healthy without community.

“I meet people frequently who say ‘I’m a Christian, I just don’t go to church.’ That’s an absolutely nonsensical answer,” says Elkins. “It’s not a matter of going to, it’s a matter of being in. It’s community, and you can’t do that by yourself.”

But actual community in the 21st century – one that is comprised chiefly of people you see face-to-face, rather than in a virtual arena – is not only increasingly hard to come by, it’s apparently becoming increasingly undesirable, as well.

In a study done by the Harvard Business Review, people showed themselves to be far and away more likely to use self-service or automated options over interacting with an actual human. And this rang true on every level – from banks, to supermarkets to troubleshooting their glitch-ridden smartphones. People, increasingly, do not want to talk to or interact with other real people if they can possibly help it.

A National Geographic exploration of worldwide longevity found that we, as average Americans, had three close friends just 15 years ago; now, most of us say we only have 1.5. This is not the case among other groups — in Okinawa, Sardinia or even American Seventh-Day Adventist communities — where close-knit, lifelong personal communities are the norm, as is longer life.

When the Harvard researchers agglomerated customer service call center data, the information showed that a staggering 57 percent of callers had already spent a considerable amount of time on the Internet and company website trying to address the problem themselves. Thirty percent stayed on the site, continuing to attempt self-service while actually talking to the person who is supposed to be the expert.

The author’s tone in the article trended toward concern for the fact that people just don’t seem to want to talk to other people without the barrier of an Internet connection. The piece was even endearingly titled “Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers,” because, presumably, they are no longer interested in being delighted.

“Here’s a hypothesis that would be concerning if it’s right: maybe customers are shifting toward self-service because they don’t want a relationship with companies,” say Matt Dixon and Lara Ponomareff, who penned the analysis. And while that theory is certainly distressing to businesses trying to romance the spending public, it carries heavier implications for the spiritual life.

Nate Novgrod, a licensed acupuncturist who also teaches Chinese spiritual practice in Waynesville, says that he sees the lack of spiritual practice translating into negative implications for his patients’ health.

“I think it can definitely be very helpful to have a group of people that are of similar mindsets,” says Novgrod. “My patients that have strong spiritual direction or path, regardless of what it is, tend to be healthier than my patients that don’t.”

That thought has a thread in it that runs through Scott Holmquist’s evangelical Christianity, too. He calls it The Body.

“The vitality of our personal relationship with God is pivotal and is key and is really, really important,” says Holmquist, “but it is always in the context of the body of Christ, the church, the virtual church.”

What he means, he says, is that sure, your own knowledge and experience is essential, but only, really, when it’s up against other people’s. That’s why it’s called a body – hands are amazing instruments, but severed from the rest of the body, they just become grotesque.

And so this is the common denominator – community, being with other people, as Heather Murray Elkins says, not going to, but being in.

And all of these practitioners concede that taking the time to do this is not easy, and the modern, Western world is in no way structured to offer time out for spiritual pursuits. Even that phrase seems like it should be in quotes, almost sarcastic in its diametric opposition to our time-is-money culture.

But taking a moment to reflect and committing time to engage with other people spiritually is, they say, vital to spiritual growth. And, as Novgrod points out, it’s not bad for physical health either. Just look at the Okinawans.


Finding the moment

Mary Teslow is a professor at Western Carolina University and also a lay leader of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin. For Unitarians, the guiding principle is to help one another search responsibly for truth. And for Teslow, that means that taking a minute to prioritize that search is a pretty important component to finding it.

“I think it’s easy for us to lose track of it, things get busy,” says Teslow. “I think being intentional about it and being willing to start small — if you can consistently carve out 15 minutes, 20 minutes — then you can build on that. You don’t have to make that ginormous change; even if you get started, that’s a good thing.”

At your law office, waiting in line for coffee, walking to work – engage your spirit in all of those times. If you don’t schedule at least a little time to nurture your spiritual life with others, it’ll fall by the wayside. At least that’s the advice of the professionals.

“It’s kind of like spiritual muscle tone. You use it or lose it,” is the way Episcopal priest Hudson puts it. Is it a challenge? Sure, he says. But that’s what makes it worth it, to you and the people around you.

Medical research has shown that leading a consistently stressful life causes something called the inflammatory response, which, according to the National Institutes of Health, is a contributing factor to all manner of nefarious afflictions like cardiovascular problems and Alzheimer’s. Stepping back from that stress-fest for just 15 minutes a day can help reduce those effects.

In his congregation, Hudson says, they often refer to a quote by Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian theologian, to guide them to fulfilling spiritual life: “vocation is where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Scott Holmquist says it’s really about taking the time you have, however small, and prioritizing it.

“The spiritual part of my life is going to require a priority that will need to have reflection in commitment of time and of resources,” he says. “Whatever we feed is going to grow.”

That’s a sentiment that hearkens back to our medieval friend Rumi, the love poet.

“But knowing depends,” said Rumi, “on the time spent looking.”

Places like Lake Junaluska Assembly exist to provide a respite and place to put in that quality time.

Jack Ewing, the director of the Assembly, says that’s what it’s been for him and his family for years; it’s what drew him to the job. He and his wife traveled to Lake Junaluska for 32 years to get away and recharge before moving there in 2005. Maintaining that spiritual space for other seekers is, he says, integral to what the Assembly is about, even as the church and world are changing.

“The reality is that we are in a world which is changing. What people want is changing,” says Ewing. “I think the mission of Lake Junaluska will always be to fulfill the needs of the church.”

That’s why, even in the action-packed Easter schedule they have going, the Assembly is carving out time for personal, spiritual celebration.

“We start Good Friday with what’s called a tenebrae service, which means a service of darkness, a relatively somber, quiet service of scripture reading and hymns,” explains Roger Dowdy, the director of ministry. That, he says, is followed by an Easter vigil, one of the most ancient ceremonies of the Christian faith that brings the church together to pause, in the darkness, and reflect on the sacrifice of Christ and their place in it together.


Changing pace

The lifestyle of our world puts pretty high value on speed, innovation and increased virtual connection. And as Scott Holmquist pointed out, there’s really nothing wrong with that. It’s led to some outstanding technological breakthroughs, like robotic surgery and nanotechnology and Post-It notes. But there is still, practitioners say, value in those little acts of rebellion against the clock. It’s a value that benefits our minds, spirits and even our bodies, and it is, they say, worth turning off the phone for, even for just a moment.

“Abraham Heschel said that if you had only one prayer to say,” says Heather Murray Elkins, “thank you would be sufficient.”

Isn’t anyone going to defend the pope?

By Marshall Frank

They’re at it again. Once again, the world is held hostage as Christians pray for their lives and nations shutter at the prospect of chaos everywhere, all at the whim of the religion of peace.

Religion and public schools a volatile mix

When a high school biology teacher in Macon County asked students to compare evolution and creation from a scientific perspective, he was treading too close to the Supreme Court’s long-held directive that mandates the separation of church and state. It’s an assignment the teacher, the school system and anyone who follows this issue needs to take a close look at.

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