World Life Ministry of Faith

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August 15, 2013

July 19, 2013

The Rise Of The Religious Left: Religious Progressives Will Soon Outnumber Conservatives

By Jack Jenkins, Guest Blogger on July 19, 2013 at 9:08 am

(Credit: flickr user nfaile)

One-in-five Americans are religious progressives, according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Using a religious orientation scale that “combines theological, economic, and social outlooks,” researchers argue that while the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to rise, a growing coalition of young, diverse, and politically-active Americans are connecting their faith with progressive values.

“Our new research shows a complex religious landscape, with religious conservatives holding an advantage over religious progressives in terms of size and homogeneity,” Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute, said in a press release. “However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

According to the survey, 23 percent of people aged 18 to 33 are religious progressives, while 22 percent are nonreligious and 17 percent are religious conservatives. By contrast, only 12 percent of those aged 66 to 88 are religious progressives, whereas 47 percent are said to be religious conservatives.

Religion has long been co-opted by religious conservatives as a vehicle for political gain, but this study hints that the future of faith-based political advocacy could rest with the left-leaning faithful. Religious progressives already make up 28 percent of the Democratic party—this in addition to 42 percent that are religious moderates—a number that only stands to grow as Millennials age and begin to vote in greater numbers.

Religious progressives are also more ethnically diverse than religious conservatives, a fact that bodes well for the Democratic party as the country becomes more racially varied. And when it comes to economic issues, religious progressives are actually more passionate than other liberals about eradicating income inequality; the study found that 88 percent of religious progressives said that the government should do more to help the poor, more than any other group polled.

“This survey also shows that religious progressives are a more significant group than is usually assumed, and there is a strong social justice constituency among religious Americans that cuts across labels,” said E.J. Dionne, a Brookings Senior Fellow.

While it’s too soon to know whether the survey signals a groundswell of faith-based progressivism, the findings echo the recent rise of an increasingly vocal—and increasingly influential—”religious left.” For example, progressive religious leaders are heading up the ongoing “Moral Monday” protests in North Carolina, citing their faith as they decry the draconian policies of the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. In addition, religious progressives—as well as some religious conservatives—are spearheading efforts to produce an immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship, and prominent, left-leaning faith leaders were a driving force behind recent attempts to pass federal legislation to help prevent gun violence. Religious progressives are also playing a crucial role in campaigns to better the lives of fast food workers and Walmart staffers, with pastors and priests utilizing their congregational resources and organizational heft to push for better wages and improved working conditions for laborers.

The emergence of this new group might raise the hackles of some more secular-minded progressives, but the study found that although religious liberals are passionate about progressive causes, they aren’t interested in imposing their beliefs on others: only 29 percent of religious progressives think a person has to believe in God to live a moral life, as compared to 74 percent of religious conservatives.

Our guest blogger is Jack Jenkins, a Senior Writer and Researcher with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative.

I am an Independent

Guest Voices
Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 02/25/2013  The Washington Post

Don't call us ‘the nones': In praise of religious independence

I’ve heard a lot about “the nones” lately. No, don’t conjure up images of cantankerous ladies in penguin-like habits enforcing Catholic-school order. These “nones” are the new “spiritual but not religious.”

The Pew Center, a major force in the socio-cultural research world, issued a report last fall that found one in three young adults in the U.S. chooses “none of the above” when asked about their religious affiliation or identity. We humans love ourselves a meme, so of course, the “nones” became a new category of person that hadn’t exactly been labeled as such before.

So what’s the big deal? Who cares if they’re a “none?” For me, it smacks of a dying modernist mindset that simply doesn’t fit anymore. That, and it also imparts a negative connotation on them, as if they lack something everyone else has.

Maybe, but not necessarily.

In politics, someone can officially identify as “independent,” and they are considered to be a cut-above the fray. We think highly of those independent thinkers. So why is it that, when it comes to religion, you can’t be independent, but instead you have to be a “none?”

The United States was built on principles of religious and political liberty, which meant both freedom of choice, as well as freedom from being a part of the system all together. It seems that, while political independence is seen as at least a virtue – or at least as socially benign – there’s still negative baggage attached to those who seek freedom from religion, and not just freedom of religion.

Calling religious independents “nones” suggests, like I said above, an absence. But increasingly, there are intentional communities that provide much of what religion has historically offered, but that would not formally be defined as “religious.” For example, what do we call someone who gathers regularly with friends to discuss a book they’re reading (maybe even the Bible), and who also donates to charity and gets involved in causes that matter to them? What if they seek wisdom and guidance through regular prayer or meditation and yet don’t darken the doors of a church? What if they meet in a friend’s home once a week, led by an unpaid but intentionally trained facilitator that walks them through Scripture?

Or what if they do what they can to live their lives more like Jesus, but they’re not particularly concerned about bearing a religious identity?

This isn’t to say there’s not a benefit in being a part of a religious group, but truth be told, there are plenty of RINOS (“Religious in Name Only”) folks among those surveyed who did claim a religion. By doing so, do they really have anything the independents lack? What if being freed from the institutional trappings of the church was what some independents needed in order to truly find a meaningful connection with God and/or one another?

Of course there are plenty of folks who simply don’t put that much thought or effort into it. Their response to a survey like the Pew study is more of a knee-jerk response, and it may be the first time they’ve put any thought into their religious identity or affiliation in a long, long time. But that isn’t necessarily limited to the “nones.” In fact, there’s a tendency within modern Christianity to think much less about one’s faith after being baptized, making a statement of faith or even signing a church ledger, especially if the whole process is for that person little more than a holy fire insurance policy.

So what does the fact that one in three young adults are now “nones” tell us? To me, all it really lets us know is that people care less and less about labels. And yet we go about labeling them, often with monikers like “nones” that are loaded with negative implications. But we get no closer to really knowing the hearts, minds and spirits of the folks in question, whether they claim a religion or not.

If we have to call them anything, “Independents” seems more fitting. But this still tells us little or nothing about ourselves, except that we love labels. But as one who spent a decade of my young adult life among these folks being called “nones,” it smacks of the same old guard, framing the conversation based on their personal values and experience, which is largely why I became a “none” to begin with.

Novemver 13, 2012

Truth Wins Out



Shocking Cult Murder Puts Spotlight On the International House of Prayer (IHOP)


By Wayne Besen    


Today, I feel a little bit like Dr. Sam Loomis. He was the psychiatristHalloween movie, Dr. Loomis in the classic horror movie Halloween who    ran through the streets of Haddonfield telling anyone who would listen that Michael Myers had just escaped from the insane asylum. As he frantically warned the residents, they looked at him as if he were a paranoid crank.


Similarly, I warned in May that something was seriously amiss at Mike Bickle's International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Grandview, MO, an exurb of Kansas City. Part of my job is monitoring extremist organizations, which brought me to the IHOP's worship center at midnight, a time I expected the cavernous hall to be practically empty. Instead, I found a far more disconcerting scene.


Here is what I wrote on May 4:


There was a gigantic 24/7 prayer room filled mostly with teenagers, many of whom appeared to be of high school or college age. A band played hypnotic Christian music while the audience of 100 or so youth engaged in a diverse set of worship rituals. Some were seated, as if they were in a traditional church setting. Others danced and skipped, like they were in some sort of fundie rave. One youth twirled a purple fan, as if he were at a gay circuit party. About a quarter of the participants walked in a trance-like state through the aisles muttering to themselves - a practice that I had not seen before. Some of these youths walked non-stop for over an hour, with no signs of stopping to rest.


Beware Grandview and Kansas City. You have an aggressive, militant, angry, fundie cult growing under your nose. It's time to wake up before you become the next Colorado Springs. Don't be caught flat footed wondering, "How did this happen?" Consider this your first warning.


My warning wasn't heeded, and residents of Grandview now appear mystified by the murder of a young woman who belonged to a religious sect with close ties to IHOP.


Tyler Deaton, IHOP cult leader The Kansas City Star reports that a charismatic youth leader, Tyler Deaton (pictured), had persuaded members of a church youth group he started at Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Texas to move with him to Kansas City, so they could be close to the IHOP.


His group allegedly began drugging and sexually assaulting Deaton's wife, Bethany, 27, for what they deemed spiritual reasons. Deaton, who identified as an "ex-gay" healed through Jesus Christ, also began having sex with male members of his cult.


Afraid that Bethany was going to reveal the group's crimes to her therapist, Deaton allegedly ordered one of his followers, Micha Moore, to murder her, and make it appear to be a suicide. The plan seemed to be working until Moore cracked and confessed to authorities.


It would be unfair to portray this episode as representative of what occurs at the IHOP. However, it cannot be denied that this church has become a magnet for extremists with a militant End Times view of the world. From my experience, it is an ideal incubator for young narcissists with Messiah-complexes, like Deaton, who fancy themselves prophets.


In my work with Truth Wins Out, I have seen many bizarre activities on the fringe. Nothing, however, has freaked me out as much as my evening at IHOP. The young people there were nothing short of zombies who looked disconnected from the world. Any ordinary person would walk away from the experience and instinctively know what he or she had witnessed was abnormal, teetering on dangerous.


If this weren't scary enough, it appears that IHOP is attempting to take over the city of Grandview and turn it into a hotbed of fundamentalism. It appears they are using Glad Heart Realty, which is located in the converted strip mall where the IHOP is based, to help move in IHOP entrancefollowers. In a town of 25,000, it wouldn't take too many  transplants to control the city's politics.


There may already be allies in government expediting the takeover. Here is what the city wrote about the IHOP coming to town a few years ago:


International House of Prayer leadership intentions are that the new campus ultimately will result activities and excitement for Grandview. Grandview was extremely pleased in the IHOP decision to make the City the movement's new "home." Since the decision was made in 2008, the City has seen a rapid influx of IHOP-associated individuals and a "quickening" and positive upswing in hope and optimism for the future.


I'm not sure the rise of a youth sect that led to the murder of Bethany Deaton was the kind of excitement that Grandview had anticipated. With other radical cults now in the area, such as Lou Engle's The Call and Andy Comisky's Desert Stream, Grandview residents might want to take a fresh look at IHOP, before everyday seems like Halloween.


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Burlington, VT 05402 


November 13, 2012



Ocala, Florida, November 9, 2012……………. A “fiscal cliff” is challenging our national leaders as they seek resolution of our budget difficulties.  But, according to members of the national  Faithful Budget Campaign, so is a struggle for the soul of our nation and its moral conscience.

The Interfaith Alliance of Marion County, an affiliate of a national organization of more than 75 faith and non-faith groups and  180,000 members,  invites local religious leaders and the general  public to a  panel discussion of a national initiative  in which communities of faith and Americans of conscience call upon government leaders  to rearrange our priorities in order to focus on the common good  and the needs of the least among us.                               

Panel participants include the host   Rabbi Ze’ev  Harari; Rev. Theodore Klebes, World Life Interfaith Ministry and Chief Administrator of the Southern White Buffalo Society, Inc.; Dr. Humeraa Qamar, pediatrician and interfaith activist;  and Diane Schrier, public school teacher. The moderator will be Barbara Fitos, executive director, The Community Foundation.  This discussion which begins at 7 p.m. will take place on Tuesday, November 13, at the Temple Beth Shalom, 1109 NE 8th Avenue, in Ocala.    A reception will follow.            

Leaders of faith communities from many religious groups came together last year to call upon our elected officials to craft a federal budget that fulfills our responsibility toward each and every member of our American family.  A list of sponsors of this initiative is given below.                                                                                                                             

But during the national dialogue known as our election campaign politicians concentrated on the needs of the middle class, seldom mentioning the poor and the marginalized. Now that the election is over, the President and the Congress must urgently  confront our nation’s fiscal well being in a manner which preserves and strengthens vital lifelines for the poor as well as provide relief for the middle class while addressing means of achieving greater financial strength through deficit reduction and robust economic expansion.


The national Faithful Budget Campaign (visit ) is predicated on a compassionate and comprehensive vision for the future, one in which we act with mercy and justice to serve the common good by “loving our neighbors as ourselves” and exercising our role as stewards of the earth.

For more information please email or telephone 352/873-9970.  You may also visit'


The following list of sponsors  are those organizations who have endorsed the preamble of the document Priorities for a Faithful Budget

Updated: March 22, 2012                                                                                                                                                           

American Friends Service Committee

Arkansas Interfaith Alliance

Bread for the World

Center of Concern

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada

Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice

Church of the Brethren

Church World Service

Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism

Conference of Major Superiors of Men

Economic Circle of Justice, Sisters of St. Dominic Blauvelt, NY

Evangelical Lutheran Church of America

Faithful Reform in Health Care

Franciscan Action Network

Friends Committee on National Legislation

Institute Leadership Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas

Islamic Society of North America

Jesuit Conference

Jubilee USA Network

Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Office, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, US

Leadership Conference of Women Religious

Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

Mennonite Central Committee U.S.

Minnesota Council of Churches

Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity

Muslim Public Affairs Council

National Advocacy Center of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd

National Council of Churches of Christ, USA

NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby

Pax Christi USA

Presbyterian Church (USA), Office of Public Witness

Progressive National Baptist Convention

Unitarian Universalist Association

United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries

United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society.

Wednesday July 11, 2012

Updated: 4:29 p.m. Wednesday, July 11, 2012 | Posted: 4:29 p.m. Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Muslims say group's police training maligns faith


The Associated Press


Law enforcement officials across Florida have been repeatedly exposed to training on Muslim extremism "full of inaccuracies, sweeping generalizations and stereotypes," a complaint filed Wednesday claims.

The classes have maligned the Prophet Muhammad and promulgated mistruths about Islam, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations and a number of mosques and smaller Muslim organizations.

"It's troubling, un-American and frankly, quite possibly illegal training," said Hassan Shibly of CAIR, which focused its criticisms squarely on one man, Sam Kharoba, who has led a variety of classes for police through his Counter Terrorism Operations Center. "It makes us less safe and less free."    Read more here >>>>

April 7, 2012

Op-Ed Columnist

Learning to Respect Religion

Published: April 7, 2012

A FEW years ago, God seemed caught in a devil of a fight.

Damon Winter/The New York Times

Nicholas D. Kristof

On the Ground

Atheists were firing thunderbolts suggesting that “religion poisons everything,” as Christopher Hitchens put it in the subtitle of his book, “God Is Not Great.” Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins also wrote best sellers that were scathing about God, whom Dawkins denounced as “arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction.”

Yet lately I’ve noticed a very different intellectual tide: grudging admiration for religion as an ethical and cohesive force.

The standard-bearer of this line of thinking — and a provocative text for Easter Sunday — is a new book, “Religion for Atheists,” by Alain de Botton. He argues that atheists have a great deal to learn from religion.

“One can be left cold by the doctrines of the Christian Trinity and the Buddhist Eightfold Path and yet at the same time be interested in the ways in which religions deliver sermons, promote morality, engender a spirit of community, make use of art and architecture, inspire travels, train minds and encourage gratitude at the beauty of spring,” de Botton writes.

“The error of modern atheism has been to overlook how many aspects of the faiths remain relevant even after their central tenets have been dismissed,” he adds, and his book displays an attitude toward religion that is sometimes — dare I say — reverential.

Edward O. Wilson, the eminent Harvard biologist, has a new book, “The Social Conquest of Earth,” that criticizes religion as “stultifying and divisive” — but also argues that religion offered a competitive advantage to early societies. Faith bolstered social order among followers and helped bind a tribe together, he writes, and that is why religion is so widespread today. And he tips his hat to the social role of faith:

“Organized religions preside over the rites of passage, from birth to maturity, from marriage to death,” Wilson writes, adding: “Beliefs in immortality and ultimate divine justice give priceless comfort, and they steel resolution and bravery in difficult times. For millennia, organized religions have been the source of much of the best in the creative arts.”

Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, also focuses on the unifying power of faith in his new book, “The Righteous Mind.” Haidt, an atheist since his teens, argues that scientists often misunderstand religion because they home in on individuals rather than on the way faith can bind a community.

Haidt cites research showing that a fear of God may make a society more ethical and harmonious. For example, one study found that people were less likely to cheat if they were first given a puzzle that prompted thoughts of God.

Another study cited by Haidt found that of 200 communes founded in the 19th century, only 6 percent of the secular communes survived two decades, compared with 39 percent of the religious ones. Those that survived longest were those that demanded sacrifices of members, like fasting, daily prayer, abstaining from alcohol or tobacco, or adopting new forms of clothing or hairstyle.

“The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship,” Haidt writes.

The latest wave of respectful atheist writing strikes me as a healthy step toward nuance. I’ve reported on some of the worst of religion — such as smug, sanctimonious indifference among Christian fundamentalists at the toll of AIDS among gay men — yet I’ve also been awed by nuns and priests risking their lives in war zones. And many studies have found that religious people donate more money and volunteer more time to charity than the nonreligious. Let’s not answer religious fundamentalism with secular fundamentalism, religious intolerance with irreligious intolerance.

The new wave is skeptical but acknowledges stunning achievements, from Notre Dame Cathedral to networks of soup kitchens run by houses of worship across America. Maybe this new attitude can eventually be the basis for a truce in our religious wars, for a bridge across the “God gulf.” Let us pray ...

Earlier this year, I reported on Lady Gaga’s campaign against bullying and learned that increasingly the Department of Education sees bullying as a serious problem. So I’d like to consult the real experts — American teenagers — by holding an essay contest for students ages 14 through 19. Please help spread the word by encouraging young people to apply by writing an essay of up to 500 words about bullying, being bullied, witnessing bullying or ideas about how to address this issue. Teenagers, help us understand the problem by sharing your experiences and insights. I’m holding the contest in partnership with The New York Times Learning Network and the national magazine Teen Ink. The only prize for the winners is eternal glory: I’ll publish excerpts from the best submissions in my column or blog. To apply, go to

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

Newsweek Magazine April 2, 2012

Content Section In Newsweek Magazine

Andrew Sullivan: Christianity in Crisis

Apr 2, 2012 1:00 AM EDT

Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him.

(Page 1 of 4)

If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was 77 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” He removed what he felt were the “misconceptions” of Jesus’ followers, “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” And it wasn’t hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as “diamonds” in a “dunghill,” glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure.


When we think of Jefferson as the great architect of the separation of church and state, this, perhaps, was what he meant by “church”: the purest, simplest, apolitical Christianity, purged of the agendas of those who had sought to use Jesus to advance their own power decades and centuries after Jesus’ death. If Jefferson’s greatest political legacy was the Declaration of Independence, this pure, precious moral teaching was his religious legacy. “I am a real Christian,” Jefferson insisted against the fundamentalists and clerics of his time. “That is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

What were those doctrines? Not the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations. Jesus’ doctrines were the practical commandments, the truly radical ideas that immediately leap out in the simple stories he told and which he exemplified in everything he did. Not simply love one another, but love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth; love the ineffable Being behind all things, and know that this Being is actually your truest Father, in whose image you were made. Above all: give up power over others, because power, if it is to be effective, ultimately requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching. That’s why, in his final apolitical act, Jesus never defended his innocence at trial, never resisted his crucifixion, and even turned to those nailing his hands to the wood on the cross and forgave them, and loved them.

Politicized Faith

Whether or not you believe, as I do, in Jesus’ divinity and resurrection—and in the importance of celebrating both on Easter Sunday—Jefferson’s point is crucially important. Because it was Jesus’ point. What does it matter how strictly you proclaim your belief in various doctrines if you do not live as these doctrines demand? What is politics if not a dangerous temptation toward controlling others rather than reforming oneself? If we return to what Jesus actually asked us to do and to be—rather than the unknowable intricacies of what we believe he was—he actually emerges more powerfully and more purely.

SCOTUS demonstration

Brooks Kraft / Corbis

And more intensely relevant to our times. Jefferson’s vision of a simpler, purer, apolitical Christianity couldn’t be further from the 21st-century American reality. We inhabit a polity now saturated with religion. On one side, the Republican base is made up of evangelical Protestants who believe that religion must consume and influence every aspect of public life. On the other side, the last Democratic primary had candidates profess their faith in public forums, and more recently President Obama appeared at the National Prayer Breakfast, invoking Jesus to defend his plan for universal health care. The crisis of Christianity is perhaps best captured in the new meaning of the word “secular.” It once meant belief in separating the spheres of faith and politics; it now means, for many, simply atheism. The ability to be faithful in a religious space and reasonable in a political one has atrophied before our eyes.

Organized Religion in Decline

Meanwhile, organized religion itself is in trouble. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy lost much of its authority over the American flock with the unilateral prohibition of the pill in 1968 by Pope Paul VI. But in the last decade, whatever shred of moral authority that remained has evaporated. The hierarchy was exposed as enabling, and then covering up, an international conspiracy to abuse and rape countless youths and children. I don’t know what greater indictment of a church’s authority there can be—except the refusal, even now, of the entire leadership to face their responsibility and resign. Instead, they obsess about others’ sex lives, about who is entitled to civil marriage, and about who pays for birth control in health insurance. Inequality, poverty, even the torture institutionalized by the government after 9/11: these issues attract far less of their public attention.

For their part, the mainline Protestant churches, which long promoted religious moderation, have rapidly declined in the past 50 years. Evangelical Protestantism has stepped into the vacuum, but it has serious defects of its own. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat explores in his unsparing new book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, many suburban evangelicals embrace a gospel of prosperity, which teaches that living a Christian life will make you successful and rich. Others defend a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory. Still others insist that the earth is merely 6,000 years old—something we now know by the light of reason and science is simply untrue. And what group of Americans have pollsters found to be most supportive of torturing terror suspects? Evangelical Christians. Something has gone very wrong. These are impulses born of panic in the face of modernity, and fear before an amorphous “other.” This version of Christianity could not contrast more strongly with Jesus’ constant refrain: “Be not afraid.” It would make Jefferson shudder.

It would also, one imagines, baffle Jesus of Nazareth. The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear in either Jefferson’s or the original New Testament. Jesus never spoke of homosexuality or abortion, and his only remarks on marriage were a condemnation of divorce (now commonplace among American Christians) and forgiveness for adultery. The family? He disowned his parents in public as a teen, and told his followers to abandon theirs if they wanted to follow him. Sex? He was a celibate who, along with his followers, anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant.

The Crisis of Our Time

All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?

That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.

Back to Jesus

Where to start? Jefferson’s act of cutting out those parts of the Bible that offended his moral and scientific imagination is one approach. But another can be found in the life of a well-to-do son of a fabric trader in 12th-century Italy who went off to fight a war with a neighboring city, saw his friends killed in battle in front of him, lived a year as a prisoner of war, and then experienced a clarifying vision that changed the world. In Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Augustine Thompson cuts through the legends and apocryphal prayers to describe Saint Francis as he truly lived. Gone are the fashionable stories of an erstwhile hippie, communing with flowers and animals. Instead we have this typical young secular figure who suddenly found peace in service to those he previously shrank from: lepers, whose sores and lesions he tended to and whose company he sought—as much as for himself as for them.

The religious order that goes by his name began quite simply with a couple of friends who were captured by the sheer spiritual intensity of how Francis lived. His inspiration was even purer than Jefferson’s. He did not cut out passages of the Gospels to render them more reasonable than they appear to the modern mind. He simply opened the Gospels at random—as was often the custom at the time—and found three passages. They told him to “sell what you have and give to the poor,” to “take nothing for your journey,” not even a second tunic, and to “deny himself” and follow the path of Jesus. That was it. So Francis renounced his inheritance, becoming homeless and earning food by manual labor. When that wouldn’t feed him, he begged, just for food—with the indignity of begging part of his spiritual humbling.

Thomas Jefferson Bible

Jefferson cut the “diamonds” of Christ’s teaching out of the “dunghill” of the New Testament., Hugh Talman / Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Francis insisted on living utterly without power over others. As stories of his strangeness and holiness spread, more joined him and he faced a real dilemma: how to lead a group of men, and also some women, in an organization. Suddenly, faith met politics. And it tormented, wracked, and almost killed him. He had to be last, not first. He wanted to be always the “lesser brother,” not the founder of an order. And so he would often go on pilgrimages and ask others to run things. Or he would sit at the feet of his brothers at communal meetings and if an issue could not be resolved without his say-so, he would whisper in the leader’s ear.

A Vision of Holiness

As Jesus was without politics, so was Francis. As Jesus fled from crowds, so did Francis—often to bare shacks in woodlands, to pray and be with God and nature. It’s critical to recall that he did not do this in rebellion against orthodoxy or even church authority. He obeyed orders from bishops and even the pope himself. His main obsession wasn’t nature, which came to sublime fruition in his final “Canticle of the Sun,” but the cleanliness of the cloths, chalices, and ornaments surrounding the holy eucharist.

His revulsion at even the hint of comfort or wealth could be extreme. As he lay dying and was offered a pillow to rest on, he slept through the night only to wake the next day in a rage, hitting the monk who had given him the pillow and recoiling in disgust at his own weakness in accepting its balm. One of his few commands was that his brothers never ride a horse; they had to walk or ride a donkey. What inspired his fellow Christians to rebuild and reform the church in his day was simply his own example of humility, service, and sanctity.

A modern person would see such a man as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too. He sang sermons in the streets, sometimes just miming them. He suffered intense bouts of doubt, self-loathing, and depression. He had visions. You could have diagnosed his postwar conversion as an outgrowth of posttraumatic-stress disorder. Or you can simply observe what those around him testified to: something special, unique, mysterious, holy. To reduce one’s life to essentials, to ask merely for daily bread, forgiveness of others, and denial of self is, in many ways, a form of madness. It is also a form of liberation. It lets go of complexity and focuses on simplicity. Francis did not found an order designed to think or control. He insisted on the simplicity of manual labor, prayer, and the sacraments. That was enough for him.

Learning How to Live

It wouldn’t be enough for most of us. And yet, there can be wisdom in the acceptance of mystery. I’ve pondered the Incarnation my whole life. I’ve read theology and history. I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human—but I don’t think my understanding is any richer than my Irish grandmother’s. Barely literate, she would lose herself in the rosary at mass. In her simplicity, beneath her veil in front of a cascade of flickering candles, she seemed to know God more deeply than I, with all my education and privilege, ever will.

This doesn’t imply, as some claim, the privatization of faith, or its relegation to a subordinate sphere. There are times when great injustices—slavery, imperialism, totalitarianism, segregation—require spiritual mobilization and public witness. But from Gandhi to King, the greatest examples of these movements renounce power as well. They embrace nonviolence as a moral example, and that paradox changes the world more than politics or violence ever can or will. When politics is necessary, as it is, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all. But it also means, at times, renouncing Caesar in favor of the Christ to whom Jefferson, Francis, my grandmother, and countless generations of believers have selflessly devoted themselves.

The saints, after all, became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles, or winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super PAC. They were saints purely and simply because of the way they lived. And this, of course, was Jefferson’s deeply American insight: “No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another. The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.”

SCOTUS demonstration

Win McNamee / Getty Images

Jefferson feared that the alternative to a Christianity founded on “internal persuasion” was a revival of the brutal, bloody wars of religion that America was founded to escape. And what he grasped in his sacrilegious mutilation of a sacred text was the core simplicity of Jesus’ message of renunciation. He believed that stripped of the doctrines of the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the various miracles, the message of Jesus was the deepest miracle. And that it was radically simple. It was explained in stories, parables, and metaphors—not theological doctrines of immense complexity. It was proven by his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution. The cross itself was not the point; nor was the intense physical suffering he endured. The point was how he conducted himself through it all—calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God. Jesus, like Francis, was a homeless person, as were his closest followers. He possessed nothing—and thereby everything.

Christianity Resurrected

I have no concrete idea how Christianity will wrestle free of its current crisis, of its distractions and temptations, and above all its enmeshment with the things of this world. But I do know it won’t happen by even more furious denunciations of others, by focusing on politics rather than prayer, by concerning ourselves with the sex lives and heretical thoughts of others rather than with the constant struggle to liberate ourselves from what keeps us from God. What Jefferson saw in Jesus of Nazareth was utterly compatible with reason and with the future; what Saint Francis trusted in was the simple, terrifying love of God for Creation itself. That never ends.

This Christianity comes not from the head or the gut, but from the soul. It is as meek as it is quietly liberating. It does not seize the moment; it lets it be. It doesn’t seek worldly recognition, or success, and it flees from power and wealth. It is the religion of unachievement. And it is not afraid. In the anxious, crammed lives of our modern twittering souls, in the materialist obsessions we cling to for security in recession, in a world where sectarian extremism threatens to unleash mass destruction, this sheer Christianity, seeking truth without the expectation of resolution, simply living each day doing what we can to fulfill God’s will, is more vital than ever. It may, in fact, be the only spiritual transformation that can in the end transcend the nagging emptiness of our late-capitalist lives, or the cult of distracting contemporaneity, or the threat of apocalyptic war where Jesus once walked. You see attempts to find this everywhere—from experimental spirituality to resurgent fundamentalism. Something inside is telling us we need radical spiritual change.

But the essence of this change has been with us, and defining our own civilization, for two millennia. And one day soon, when politics and doctrine and pride recede, it will rise again.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the print version of this piece incorrectly stated that Thomas Jefferson started editing the Bible when he was 27 years old. Jefferson was 77 years old when he began the project. The text has been updated to reflect the change.

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Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, weekly columnist for the Sunday Times of London, brought his hugely popular blog, The Dish, to the Daily Beast in 2011. He's the author of several books, including "Virtually Normal," "Love Undetectable," and "The Conservative Soul."

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April 3, 2012

I wanted to make sure you knew that the Department of Education has relaunched their impressive, deep and broad bullying prevention site,
Especially impressive is their clickable map aggregation of state laws: and the Web site’s thoughtful description of “Key Components of State Anti-Bullying Laws”:

From DOE:

We are excited to introduce you to a revitalized!
Building on the momentum started a year ago by the Obama Administration and relaunched in partnership with the Department of Education, the new site emphasizes action steps individuals can take to prevent and stop bullying in their schools and communities. It also features easy-to-use tools and resources for community leaders, young people and families, including:
·         How to recognize the warning signs and when to take action
·         Tips to prevent bullying before it starts
·         How to implement strategies for intervention
·         Ways to share your community’s resources, policies or strategies to prevent and address bullying
·         Information on bullying laws in your state

We hope the new site will help you share ideas and start discussions about the role you can play in preventing bullying in your community. Show your support on your own website with our widgets and badges and subscribe to email updates to find out about new content on the site. We also encourage you to consider submitting your materials for inclusion in ourresource database.  You can also follow on Twitter or Facebook for more information on how to take action.
Please also look for the yellow boxes at the bottom of most pages. This is our new user feedback tool, which you can use to tell us whether you found the page useful or not. You can also share your ideas for how to improve it. We hope you enjoy the new site, and look forward to hearing your feedback on how we can continue to support your work on bullying prevention and intervention.
In addition, all of the Federal government agencies’ bullying prevention efforts – including HRSA’s Stop Bullying Now! Campaign – have been transitioned to one central location. We encourage you to replace the Stop Bullying Now! logo with the new logo and swap the HRSA URL ( for if you provide links from your site.
The Editorial Board, with representation from:
U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including:
·         Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
·         Health Resources and Services Administration
·         Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Deborah A. Temkin, M.A., M.S.
Research and Policy Coordinator, Bullying Prevention Initiatives
Office of Safe and Healthy Students
US Department of Education

Jay Keller
Interfaith Alliance
1212 New York Ave NW Suite 1250
Washington, DC 20005-3987
202-238-3300 front desk, 202-238-3301 FAX

From Senator Barry Goldwater.
Congressional Record, 16 Sept. 1981:

"There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerfull ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus, God, or Allah, or whatever one calls the supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A,B,C, and D. Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of conservatism."

Spring songs: A Passover and Easter prayer for the year 5772/2012

For Christians and Jews, all of our religious holidays divide us except for Passover and Easter. Passover and Easter divide us by bringing us closer together. Let me try to explain this exquisite spiritual contradiction.

Passover and Easter are different in that Passover, as theologian Martin Buber has written, is celebrated by a meal eaten for God, while Easter is celebrated by a meal eaten of God.

Passover celebrates a God who could not become visible, while Easter celebrates a God who had to become visible to save a sinful humanity. Passover is about liberation for a nation of slaves. Easter is about liberation of individual believers from the enslavement of sin.

There are worlds of difference between these two faiths, and as much as we wish to come together, our sacred histories do keep us apart. However, we're only kept apart the way singers in different parts of the same choir are kept apart by the timber of their voices. We're kept apart the way climbers are kept apart by their choices to climb the same mountain by different paths. Passover and Easter teach us that the ways we're different, though real and defining, are not nearly as important as the ways we're all the same. Let me pray this truth now.

Passover and Easter are both songs of springtime. Both are celebrations of a season of new growth and new births for the flocks that still feed us, even if we only encounter them in plastic trays in the supermarket. The parsley on the seder plate and the Easter eggs in the neon green plastic basket are both just symbols of springtime. We are sophisticated human beings now, but our spring song holidays remind us that we're still animals waiting for seasonal rebirth.

Passover and Easter also unite us through our sacred history and sacred scripture. According to the synoptic gospels, the Last Supper of Jesus was a Passover seder meal (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; and Luke 22:7). The Gospel of John has it as occurring the day before Passover (John 13:1)--a distinction without a difference, but that's just the opinion of your loyal rabbi columnist.

The point is that this holiday celebrating the Exodus from Egypt for Jews was transformed into a new kind of Exodus from a new type of bondage--the bondage of original sin. To insure that the messages of Passover and Easter remain forever linked, Easter is the only Christian holiday whose arrival is calculated on the ancient Jewish lunar calendar.

This year, the first seder meal is on Good Friday (April 6). It's my personal view that God would be pleased by this concatenation of freedom stories. Passover is about freedom, understood as liberation from oppression. Easter is about freedom, understood as salvation from sin. Both capture an essential element of freedom. That's the way with all truly great songs, truly enduring stories and truly transformative rituals.

To try to comparatively rate our two different spring songs or, worst of all, to try to force our songs upon each other, is a betrayal of the way God has taught us to sing our songs into this broken world. I can love the song of Easter, and I do love it, without forcing its song into my soul's voice. Christians can love Passover without believing that the song of the Last Supper was supposed to be the last Passover song sung by Jews. When we're at our best, we are not God's debaters, but God's choir.

Our lives sustain us, but our lives also break us. We make bad choices and we're also the victims of pure bad luck. Either way, we can be tempted to lose hope. Passover and Easter restore our hope.

The Exodus from Egypt was a historical event, but it echoes our own personal emancipation from the Egypts that keep us enslaved to false gods and small needs. This is why the text of the Passover haggadah citing Exodus 13:8 commands us to teach our children and each other that each of us is required to view ourselves as if we had also left Egypt.

History reaches out beyond its rational limits and becomes a sacred history. If we were freed then, we can be freed now. If we were led through the sea then, we can be led through our own oceans of despair now. In an identical way, Easter reaches beyond the limits of history to personally embrace and challenge every Christian with the joy and good news that our sin is no longer an obstacle to God's acceptance of our lives as they are right here, right now.

Just as God reached into every Hebrew home during Passover, then as now, so God reached out into every Christian heart during Easter, then as now.

Taking his people out of the house of bondage and removing the bondage of sin are acts of liberation so awesome and exquisite, so transformative and gracious, so loving and powerful that we have no proper response except a gratitude that washes over us and waters the world with a redeeming stream that shall never cease and never slack.

Happy Passover! Happy Easter!

(Send QUESTIONS ONLY to The God Squad, c/o Tribune Media Services, 2010 Westridge Drive, Irving, TX 75038, or email them to

April 2, 2012

Seeing and Believing

Experiences with evangelical congregations.

by April 2, 2012

One person reported without irony that if you slow down the sound of a cricket you can hear it sing Handel

One person reported without irony that if you slow down the sound of a cricket you can hear it sing Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus.

The United States, as we know, is a very religious country, but the figures still have the power to amaze. Since 1996, according to Gallup polls, between thirty-five and forty-seven per cent of Americans have described themselves as “evangelical” or “born again”; two-thirds mostly or wholly believe that angels and devils are at work in the world. Given these figures, skeptics would do well to find out what is going on in evangelical churches, and that is what T. M. Luhrmann tries to explain in her new book, “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God” (Knopf). Luhrmann is a well-qualified guide: an anthropologist specializing in esoteric faiths. Her dissertation was on witch-and-warlock cults in contemporary England. Later, she wrote a book on the Parsis, a Zoroastrian community in India. Her most recent book was the highly praised “Of Two Minds,” a study of psychiatric residents and their handling of patients who had visions, among other problems. Almost always, Luhrmann has written with sympathy, not scorn, for these convinced people.

Nevertheless, she is a scientist, and believes in evidence. She spent two years as a full-time member of an evangelical church in Chicago, and another two years in a congregation in Palo Alto. (Those are the cities where she was teaching during that period, first at the University of Chicago, then at Stanford.) Both churches were part of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, which came together in California in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, and now has about fifteen hundred congregations around the world. Most of the members of the churches that Luhrmann attended were white, middle class, college-educated, and centrist. They weren’t Pentecostals (that is, most of them didn’t speak in tongues or heal the sick). But neither were they just conservative Christians. In Luhrmann’s words, they placed “a flamboyant emphasis on the direct experience of God.” If you made contact with him, they believed, he would become your intimate, someone “who loves and cuddles you.”

How do you find this God? First, you train yourself to recognize the evidence of his operation in your life. One Vineyard parishioner, Augusta, described feeling “goosebumps and just warm all over and just very peaceful, and I know that he’s there.” Or if a thought pops into your head that’s not the kind of thought you normally have, and, above all, if it strangely matches something else in your recent experience, that is likely to be God speaking. Sarah, a member of the Palo Alto congregation, told Luhrmann that one morning, when she had finished her prayers, she went on sitting in her prayer chair and let her mind wander. She kept seeing a picture with boats in it. Then the phone rang. It was the pastor. She asked him why he was calling. “And he said, ‘I don’t know. I just felt like I was supposed to call you.’ And it clicked then, that the picture I had seen wasn’t a distraction from my prayers but was connected to my prayers, I told him about this picture that I’d gotten. And he told me . . . that several people had gotten the same picture, and that it was about Jesus with his hands on the wheel of a ship.”

In the second step, worshippers, when they recognize that God is with them, must learn to treat him like an intimate. This injunction, probably more than anything else in Luhrmann’s book, will puzzle readers who were raised in other religious traditions. The Vineyarders have no interest in God as a figure of majesty, or of judgment. They wear shorts and sneakers to church on Sunday. In Chicago, the service begins with “free time,” during which you needn’t sit down. You can dance or sway in the aisles, Luhrmann says, or have doughnuts and coffee from the snack table. Once you do sit down (you can bring your coffee with you), you hear a sermon augmented by a PowerPoint presentation.

This casualness carries over to conversations with God. The Vineyarders asked him “for admission to specific colleges, for the healing of specific illness—even, it is true, for specific red convertible cars.” Some Vineyard women had a regular “date night” with Jesus. They would serve a special dinner, set a place for him at the table, chat with him. He guided the Vineyarders every minute of the day. Sarah told Luhrmann how, one day, after a lunch at a restaurant with fellow-parishioners, she was feeling good about herself, whereupon, as she was crossing the parking lot, a bird shat on her blouse. God, she explained to Luhrmann, was giving her a little slap on the wrist for her self-satisfaction. Sarah accepted the chastisement, but others don’t. They may get furious with God. And, according to some evangelicals, he feels bad when this happens. In “Disappointment with God” (1988), the religious writer Philip Yancey claims that God can’t bear for us to turn away from him. He longs for us to like him. It is hard to understand how evangelicals, most of whom are regular Bible readers, could come to this conclusion about the God of Abraham and Job.

So the third step is to “develop your heart”—that is, to cultivate the emotions that are appropriate to receiving God’s unconditional love. There are exercises for this, notably, what Luhrmann calls “crying in the presence of God.” During sermons, the congregation wept—sometimes the pastor wept, too. In the small weekly meetings called “house group,” people cried their eyes out. “At one conference I attended,” Luhrmann writes, “four men spoke, one after the other, and every last one of them wept by the time he was done.” Above all, the congregants cried when they were “prayed over” by their fellows. At the end of the service, if they had troubles, they went over to the “prayer team” standing against a side wall, and the team huddled around them, touched them, and prayed over them, “asking God to make them feel safe, loved, and protected—wrapped in his arms, soothed by his embrace, washed by his forgiveness.” If, under such ministrations, you didn’t cry, this was something you had to explain.


Read more

March 4, 2012

The Circle Of Life

Why is it so hard to let go at the end?

By Craig Bowron


Published:March 4, 2012, 12:00 AM

Updated: March 4, 2012, 6:28 AM


I’m on the hospital wards, and a physician in the emergency room downstairs is talking to me about an elderly patient who needs to be admitted to the hospital. The patient is new to me, but the story is familiar: He has several chronic conditions—

heart failure, weak kidneys, anemia, Parkinson’s and mild dementia — all tentatively held in check by a fistful of medications. He has been falling more frequently, and his appetite has fallen off, too. Now a stroke threatens to topple this house of cards.

The ER physician and I talk briefly about what can be done. The stroke has driven the patient’s blood pressure through the roof, aggravating his heart failure, which in turn is threatening his fragile kidneys. The stroke is bad enough that, given his disabilities related to his Parkinson’s, he will probably never walk again. In elderly patients with a web of medical conditions, the potential complications of any therapy are often large and the benefits small. It’s a medical checkmate; all moves end in abdication.

I head to the ER. If I’m lucky, the family will accept the news that, in a time when we can separate conjoined twins and reattach severed limbs, people still wear out and die of old age. If I’m lucky, the family will recognize that their loved one’s life is nearing its end.

But I’m not always lucky. The family may ask me to use my physician superpowers to push the patient’s tired body further down the road, with little thought as to whether the additional suffering to get there will be worth it. For many Americans, modern medical advances have made death seem more like an option than an obligation. We want our loved ones to live as long as possible, but our culture has come to view death as a medical failure rather than life’s natural conclusion.

These unrealistic expectations often begin with an overestimation of modern medicine’s power to prolong life, a misconception fueled by the dramatic increase in the American life span over the past century. To hear that the average U.S. life expectancy was 47 years in 1900 and 78 years as of 2007, you might conclude that there weren’t a lot of old people in the old days—and that modern medicine invented old age. But average life expectancy is heavily skewed by childhood deaths, and infant mortality rates were high back then. In 1900, the U.S. infant mortality rate was approximately 100 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. In 2000, the rate was 6.89 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

The bulk of that decline came in the first half of the century, from simple public health measures such as improved sanitation and nutrition, not open heart surgery, MRIs or sophisticated medicines. Similarly, better obstetrical education and safer deliveries in that

same period also led to steep declines in maternal mortality, so that by 1950, average life expectancy had catapulted to 68 years.

For all its technological sophistication and hefty price tag, modern medicine may be doing more to complicate the end of life than to prolong or improve it. If a person living in 1900 managed to survive childhood and childbearing, she had a good chance of growing old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person who made it to 65 in 1900 could expect to live an average of 12 more years; if she made it to 85, she could expect to go another four years. In 2007, a 65-year-old American could expect to live, on average, another 19 years; if he made it to 85, he could expect to go another six years.

Another factor in our denial of death has more to do with changing demographics than advances in medical science. Our nation’s mass exodus away from the land and an agricultural existence and toward a more urban lifestyle means that we’ve antiseptically left death and the natural world behind us. At the beginning of the Civil War, 80 percent of Americans lived in rural areas and 20 percent lived in urban ones. By 1920, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the ratio was around 50-50; as of 2010, 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas.

For most of us living with sidewalks and street lamps, death has become a rarely witnessed, foreign event. The most up-close death my urban-raised children have experienced is the occasional walleye being reeled toward doom on a family fishing trip or a neighborhood squirrel sentenced to death-by-Firestone. The chicken most people eat comes in plastic wrap, not at the end of a swinging cleaver. The farmers I take care of aren’t in any more of a hurry to die than my city-dwelling patients, but when death comes, they are familiar with it. They’ve seen it, smelled it and had it under their fingernails. A dying cow is not the same as a person nearing death, but living off the land strengthens one’s understanding that all living things eventually die.

Mass urbanization hasn’t been the only thing to alienate us from the circle of life. Rising affluence has allowed us to isolate senescence. Before nursing homes, assisted-living centers and in-home nurses, grandparents, their children and their grandchildren were often living under the same roof, where everyone’s struggles were plain to see. In 1850, 70 percent of white elderly adults lived with their children. By 1950, 21 percent of the overall population lived in multigenerational homes, and today that figure is only 16 percent. Sequestering our elderly keeps most of us from knowing what it’s like to grow old.

This physical and emotional distance becomes obvious as we make decisions that accompany life’s end. Suffering is like a fire: Those who sit closest feel the most heat; a picture of a fire gives off no warmth. That’s why it’s typically the son or daughter who has been physically closest to an elderly parent’s pain who is the most willing to let go. Sometimes an estranged family member is “flying in next week to get all this straightened out.” This is usually the person who knows the least about her struggling parent’s health; she’ll have problems bringing her white horse as carry-on luggage. This person may think she is being driven by compassion, but a good deal of what got her on the plane was the guilt and regret of living far away and having not done any of the heavy lifting in caring for her parent.

With unrealistic expectations of our ability to prolong life, with death as an unfamiliar and unnatural event, and without a realistic, tactile sense of how much a worn-out elderly patient is suffering, it’s easy for patients and families to keep insisting on more tests, more medications, more procedures.

When families talk about letting their loved ones die “naturally,” they often mean “in their sleep” — not from a treatable illness such as a stroke, cancer or an infection. Choosing to let a loved one pass away by not treating an illness feels too complicit; conversely, choosing treatment that will push a patient into further suffering somehow feels like taking care of him. While it’s easy to empathize with these family members’ wishes, what they don’t appreciate is that very few elderly patients are lucky enough to die in their sleep. Almost everyone dies of something.

Close friends of ours brought their father, who was battling dementia, home to live with them for his final, beautiful and arduous years. There they loved him completely, even as Alzheimer’s took its dark toll. They weren’t staring at a postcard of a fire; they had their eyebrows singed by the heat. When pneumonia finally came to get him, they were willing to let him go.