SOULJOURN Study Guide – for groups, classes, and individuals

SOULJOURN Study Guide – for groups, classes, and individuals August 21, 2013


SOULJOURN:  The book and the journey…. explore it here

SOULJOURN  is a novel with a mission:  to inspire readers to explore the world’s religions, in their own “back yards”!  SOULJOURN moves people to learn more about their own faiths by engaging personally with religious communities other than their own.  It also inspires people to put their faith to work for the common good.  Below is a study guide intended to facilitate discussion about the book and about important topics in world religion.  The book is used by schools, universities, faith communities, and other groups to encourage “literacy” in the religions of the world.


A thirst for God leads Joshua T. Stoneburner on a quest through the spiritual landscape of America. In his pickup truck, Joshua T. Stoneburner bounces down the back roads of America’s vast and irregular religious landscape, his tires kicking up dusty rooster-tails of questions about the nature of God and the purpose of life. Was it God he saw in the cactus? Josh isn’t giving up till he finds out, even if it turns his teenage years upside-down. His search for clues leads him into every form of spirituality he can find — enlightening, exasperating, and entertaining the people along his path. Each faith exposes more of the pattern in his vision, tantalizing the reader with religious revelations. Along his way, Josh is drawn toward stranded immigrants, a tormented church janitor, a café waitress and her young fraternal twins, a Native American scout for drug smugglers, and his own fumbling father’s love. Josh Stoneburner is the “coyote” spiriting the reader back and forth over the border of laughter and tears. By the end of the book, Josh has questioned his way into faithful compassion, rather than affiliating with any particular faith. SOULJOURN taps the aquifer of humor that exists under every religion, while it explores the ways that American culture, and every faith that crosses the US border, infect each other. SOULJOURN is an entertaining way to learn about the religions of the world, and to get inspired to learn a lot more.


Study Questions for SOULJOURN


with relevant passages from the novel




Have you ever had an out-of-ego experience?  How can religion and spirituality help to get you out of your “selfish” self?




“Then I looked at the cholla and I saw that the sun was shining directly behind it so that its spines glowed like a thousand splinters of green-gold glass. It seemed like time stopped and nothing else existed except that cactus. Not even myself.”




What’s the difference between mental illness and spiritual visions? 




“I believe you,” Grandma Greta said, holding me by the shoulder. “What you saw is very, very important to you and to me.” 


“If Dad hears that I’m still seeing this stuff, he’ll take me to the doctor or something,” I said. “Do you think I’m going nuts?”


“No, Josh. I don’t think you’re crazy at all,” she said. “I think you have a gift.”







One of the tents had a bookstore in it, and I wandered through in a spare moment. There I found a book about Ellen White. The pictures in it, from the 1800’s, showed a pale, broad-faced, unsmiling woman with dark hair. Then I got to the part of the book that talked about her childhood. She had been hit in the face with a rock by a schoolmate when she was nine years old, and from then on, she had visions of Jesus and the angels. From those visions, the Seventh Day Adventist Church was born. I flashed to my memory of the girl or Virgin in the cactus, who also had a pale, broad face. That tingle went up my spine again. And the rock: did it have anything to do with the one I found in front of the cactus?




How much is religion an identity, and how much is a practice or belief?  What makes a person a “member” of a religion? 




“So are you Catholic?” he asked me.


“I guess not. I mean, my grandma was Catholic. My mom was Catholic. Does that make me Catholic?”


“Well, you have to be baptized in the Catholic Church, or confirmed, in order to be a Catholic Christian,” explained Father Crespi.


“I guess I’m not Catholic, then. Am I allowed to go to mass if I’m not Catholic?”


“Sure, you are always welcome at mass. But you cannot eat the host unless you are Catholic,” said Father Crespi.






How much of religion is driven by social needs rather than spiritual ones? 




But compared to playing video games for hours with Ronnie Morales, or smoking weed with Jed and Mike and Eddie in Mike’s back yard, going to the youth group at the Cuprite Baptist Church was refreshing. A lot of what happened at the church seemed strange and even ridiculous, but some of what we were talking about was serious. Like how to live. What is right and what is wrong. What matters in life and what doesn’t. At least we were talking about how we felt about things. I’d never been with a group of people like that.




And oh, that fleeting view of Tekla’s belly flesh, shaped like the moon that held up La Virgen de Guadalupe . .




It’s an imperative in some religious groups to convert other people to the faith.  How does that affect relationships between “believers” and “non-believers”?  Can they have genuine relationships without the “ulterior motive” of conversion?




“I’m sorry,” I said as I stood upright. I was smeared with spilled milkshake. “I just couldn’t believe that after all this time, you have been thinking I am going to hell because I haven’t accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I mean, it just seems funny to me. Think about it this way, Tekla. How would you feel if I thought you were going to hell if you died right now? What kind of friend thinks that about his friend? What kind of friendship is that?”


“If you were a believer, you’d understand,” she answered, smiling. 




How does your faith tradition see itself in relationship to other faiths?  Is it exclusive (my faith is the only true one and others are false at best and evil at worst), inclusive (other faiths have partial truth in them, but only my faith has the most complete truth), or pluralistic (other faiths may be as good and true for others as my faith is for me)?  Does your religious tradition have another way of relating to other faiths?




“But what about a guy from Egypt who believes in Mohammed, or whatever. He wears a funny hat and bows down toward a rock somewhere in Arabia, but he is a good guy. He loves his family and works hard. Is he going to hell? I don’t think so. It doesn’t make any sense,” I declaimed.




“You are completely missing the point. Christianity is not about punishment; it’s about salvation. The question isn’t who is going to hell, the question is how to reach out to everyone with the gospel and bring them all to Christ.” The sweat on her face was streaking her makeup foundation. I wanted to get under all this stuff.




“And how do you expect to bring them to Christ if you teach a religion that says that people who don’t belong to it are going to hell?” I asked. “It’s insulting.”





I showed up the next Wednesday in the Fireside Room of the Federated Church. Around the table were Father Crespi, Pastor Kate, Glossie Protheroe, and a woman I had not met before.




“This is Alice Kahn from Beth Israel, the Jewish community in Portales,” said Pastor Kate. “Meet Josh Stoneburner.” From Alice I learned that there were not many religious Jews in town, but those few met at her house every week for Shabbat service and Hebrew school for the five or six kids in their congregation.




Alice told me she also practiced Buddhism.


“Then why do you have a Jewish service in your house?” I asked.


“I wanted my kids to learn their tradition,” she answered.


“But if you are Buddhist, wouldn’t you want your kids to be Buddhist, too?”




The rest of the people around the table were smiling at each other.


“Being a Buddhist makes me a better Jew, and being a Jew makes me a better Buddhist. I do Buddhist meditation practice with my kids, too.”




How do Seedless Thompson’s letters to his “adopted children” compare with the letters of St. Paul in the Christian New Testament?




Seedless had “adopted” the children through the World Christian Children’s Fund, an organization in Chicago that matched third-world children with Americans who sent money to them for necessities like food, clothes, and school expenses. In return, the children wrote the donors letters describing their lives and the ways they used the money. Seedless had been doing this for many years, and I was amazed that he would spend so much of his church janitor’s salary on the children.






What is faith?  Is it belief in a religious doctrine, is it a way of living, is it an attitude toward life, or is it something else?




 “Yes, as a matter of fact, it did hurt. Kierkegaard died young and unhappy. Pastor Kate and I went through his book Fear and Trembling together. We engaged the questions Kierkegaard raised about faith. Is faith about something you can explain? Or is real faith a faith in something you cannot see or explain, something that may even be absurd? Pastor Kate says faith must be existential, it must be a conscious leap into the unknown and unknowable, an embrace with seeming nonsense. Me, I don’t think so. I get embraced by the absurd all the time.”




Have you ever had your life transformed by something that seemed small and insignificant?




I started reading the New Testament gospels and was captivated by the character of Jesus, especially by his gift for storytelling. For some reason I really liked the one about yeast. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” One little thing can change everything. I go up Cobre Mountain one day and happen to look at a certain cactus, of all the chollas on the mountain, and I see something in that particular cactus, and my life is never the same. One little thing gets inside me and turns all of me in a direction I never would have imagined.






Who or what is God?  If you don’t believe in God, which God don’t you believe in?   Is God supernatural or natural?  What forms of theism (or atheism) exist in different religious traditions?




“Well, it is true that I have no use whatsoever for organized religion, or much use for disorganized religion, for that matter. It isn’t just because I’m a hardheaded scientist, either. It’s because religion has a way of dividing people from each other, turning them against each other in the name of God. And it is true that I don’t believe in God, because I see no evidence of an intelligent creator of the universe. God is a useful hypothesis neither in science nor in my personal life.”




“That all depends on what you mean by ‘creator,'” I said. “Maybe God isn’t sitting on a throne on the other side of the universe, telling everything when and how to happen. Maybe God is the process of creation itself.” I was pleased with my newly acquired ideas, and eager to nail my dad to the Wittenberg door with them.




“Well, if that is all God is, why bother talking about God at all? Why not just talk about the process? Which is what we do in geology. The universe is awesome enough, without having to bring God into it,” answered Dad.




“Maybe God is awe,” I suggested. “Awe is God’s name. Budd-awe, Krishn-awe, Y-awe-weh, All-awe . . .”





“I heard that the Hindus worship lots of idols,” I said.




“I wouldn’t describe it that way,” answered Siva. “We have lots of gods; it is said that there are 333,000,000 of them in the Hindu pantheon.”




“That’s ridiculous. How can you worship that many gods? I mean, my grandma took me to the Catholic church, and that’s complicated enough, with all those saints.”




“To say we have 333,000,000 gods is more of a poetic way of indicating that God has about as many different manifestations as there are people to notice them,” answered Siva.




“Wait a minute. Are there lots of gods, or just one?”




“Both,” answered Siva with a smile, revealing just about every tooth in his head.




“But it’s got to be one or the other,” I demanded.




“Oh, does it, young man?” asked Siva, still grinning.







“God has no arms or legs, no hands or feet, no fingers or toes, but ours, and those of all other creatures in the universe,” I said, still sitting on the stage with Dana and Leon. “It’s up to us to be God’s friends, to call each other out of the hole. It’s up to us to help, so that all of us, together, can cross over the line and win the race.”




How much of spiritual experience is about ideas and how much is about feelings?  Is the human experience of God an emotion, a thought, or something else?






I read a book called “Prayer” by Abhishiktananda, a European Christian monk who lived in India and followed Jesus in the way that a Hindu would follow a guru. I had special-ordered it from the Tucson library system. Seedless told me about the book. I was fascinated with the idea that somebody following one religion would do it according to the traditions of another religion. Reading the book, I felt surrounded by God. It felt warm and comforting. Hard to explain, like so much I was discovering.




How much of religion is shaped by the need to appeal to groups of people that religions are trying to reach?




It seemed far-fetched that they believed that Jesus came to America and that the Indians were related to the Jews. But then, I thought maybe it was another way for religion to bring both sides of the border together. It was kind of similar to the idea of the Virgin Mary appearing as an Indian to the Indians. The Mormons believed that the Indians heard about Jesus in America before white people arrived. From what I learned in history class, this made no sense at all. But millions of Mormons were sure that it was true. Or at least acted like they were sure.




How and why do new religions or sects get started?  What are the social, historical, and spiritual reasons that they develop?  Do some religions begin by accident?




“And about me. Here’s the deal. I’m just a stupid teenager. I don’t know anything more about God than you do. Honest. If I had any kind of special thing going with God, I wouldn’t be nearly as confused as I am about almost everything.”




“Beautiful,” said Magdalena to the crowd. “The Holy Mother shows herself to an ordinary teenager.”




“La Virgen de San Lorenzo,” muttered a dentally challenged old man, waving his arms skyward in supplication.




“Take us to the cactus where you saw the Holy Mother,” yelled one of the people. “Please,” called out another.




Humility is a sure sign of deep spirituality, and I just had hyped my humbleness. So that tactic didn’t work.




What is the role of miracles in religious faith?




“The I Ching is ancient wisdom from China. You could call it both religion and philosophy. The introduction to this edition was written by Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst. He described what he called synchronicity. These are things that happen together that are not caused by each other, but still have very meaningful connections. I think it is a way of describing what some people call miracles, but in a way that does not conflict with science. There may well be processes of nature that we do not understand yet, resulting in what looks like the miraculous to us. I certainly cannot explain what happened to you. It is amazing. The shimmer of hummingbird wings is just as miraculous as what happened to you, even though science can explain that shimmer.” He pointed out his window to a hummingbird hovering by a flower outside in the church courtyard. “But just because you can explain something doesn’t mean you really know what it is.”






Is religious faith valid and sincere if it is mainly motivated by family and community influences?




“Here’s how I look at it. I’m just Tyler Crenshaw. What do I know? Am I God?” Tyler waved his arms at the sky. “Am I even supposed to know it all? All I know is that the people I love and trust the most say that the Mormon Church is true. That’s good enough for me. I wouldn’t argue with you if you said otherwise, but that’s how it is for me.”




Can a religious scripture be experienced faithfully and fully without believing it is literally true?




Maybe what mattered was that my visions were meaningful to me, no matter how they happened. The visions of Ellen White were meaningful for Seventh Day Adventists, whether or not she had temporal lobe epilepsy. Whatever the real story behind it might have been, the Book of Mormon was meaningful for Mormons. Whether the imprint of the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s tunic was put there by God, or was just the first silk-screened Hispanic tee-shirt art in the Americas, that image of the Virgin meant a great deal to Catholic Mexicans.




Behind all the claims made by religion, many of them fantastic, I was finding another level of truth. These stories and scriptures and beliefs pointed to a reality beyond factual explanation. Maybe it didn’t matter how a rose quartz crystal could open my heart to a hurting woman who had lost her boyfriend in the desert. Maybe it was enough that my heart had been opened at all.





It seemed like the Hebrew Torah was a vast labyrinth in which every letter and every word was connected in some meaningful way to every other word and letter. You could follow the connections endlessly, and never find all the meanings of the text.




What is the place of mind-altering substances in religion and spirituality?  Can they be valid parts of a sincere spiritual tradition?




When she wasn’t in jail, or in rehab, or in the hospital, Emily Luis was leaning against the portales in the plaza, sprawled on the cool pavement, sleeping off a drunk. It didn’t take much imagination to see that at one time she had been a beauty: a small woman with high cheekbones, now swollen and bruised.




“Hey, it’s Papago tradition,” she told me when I met her for the first time outside the Rinconada Cafe on the plaza. Her hand was quivering, spilling the coffee out of the paper cup she was holding. “Our people used to drink saguaro wine till they barfed it all up, as part of the rain ceremony. If I don’t drink, the rain won’t fall in the summer, then the wells will run dry and my people will die of thirst,” she chuckled.





“Elder Brother visits in different ways. Visions sometimes, possession sometimes. And no wonder you saw him in a cactus. Cactus is sacred,” said Leonard. “Cholla is for healing. Eat cholla buds and they will help you take care of the diabetes. Ever eat peyote cactus?”




What does your faith tradition teach about an afterlife?  What do you believe about it?  How does this belief affect the way you live?  How do different faiths talk about life before and after death?




“So what about heaven and hell? Who do you think is going to heaven, and who do you think is going to hell?”




The couple explained that there is no hell. Instead, those who don’t go to heaven just cease to exist. “It is as if they had never been,” said the woman. “Christian faith is not about punishment. It is about gaining eternal life.”




“Those who are not saved will return to dust: ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” continued the man.




How does your faith tradition inform and inspire its members to be of service to others, and to stand up for social justice?




“So it’s my turn to ask a few questions,” Dad continued. “Why are you religious folks so interested in mojados?”




Pastor Kate was ready with an answer. “Because that is what we are called to do as Christians: to stand with the poor and oppressed. So we formed an interfaith, ecumenical covenant group to address the issues of migrants, and came up with a plan of action.”







“Well, maybe there’s no border between heaven and earth. Maybe earth is part of heaven. Maybe what is happening in heaven is connected to what is happening on earth,” replied Cal. “Jesus says in his prayer ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. I think he was all about breaking down the boundary between the two. And I think that is what we are doing here, too. Sure, there’s a border between the US and Mexico, but there is no border in the kingdom of heaven, where both gringos and Mexicans live. If enough people act like we’re all citizens of the kingdom of heaven, eventually the border fence will come down.”






To what extent is religion compatible with science?  How do different religions, and sects of religion, differ in their relationship to scientific knowledge and inquiry?






Glossie explained that Christian Science is based on the principle that mind is real and matter is an unreal illusion. As a person cultivates his or her spiritual nature and becomes more aware of it, the corruptions of matter fall naturally away. Disease is a manifestation of belief in the reality of matter, which is unreal.




“But if mind is all that is real, and matter isn’t, then doesn’t that mean that what we think of as matter is really part of mind, and therefore mind and matter really are the same thing?” I asked.




Glossie tried to explain that matter is an error in thinking, and that once corrected, truth and love can prevail.









Seedless slapped the table with his hands, and I winced again. “This table is made of subatomic particles. The particles are the same kinds of things as numbers: they are universal realities that are the same wherever you find them. It turns out that the substance of this table is real in the same way that the number two is real. Both of them are universal ideas. The physical universe is made out of universal concepts.




“Mental reality and physical reality are each made out of the same kind of reality, the reality of ideas. The universal concepts you think about are just as real as the grey blob of brain matter you think them with. The number two, and the brain cells that think the number two, are made out of the same kind of reality.”






How can religion help people to be more self-aware?  How do different religions practice mindfulness?




On the way home, I thought about the nature of reality. The part that made sense to me in Christian Science was the idea of taking the mind seriously, treating thoughts as if they were real things. I realized that I didn’t spend much time considering my own thoughts. I just thought them, without really looking at them. What a waste of my life, to fail to notice my thoughts. What an amazing opportunity I had to examine them, to fully appreciate and experience what was going on in my own mind. My inner world seemed like a vast and trackless wilderness begging to be explored.





“I’ve discovered that my self is a tough opponent, too,” I said quietly as I approached the oak table. 




“What’s that?” asked Seedless, again too loud.




“I’ve been trying to pay attention to my thoughts. I discovered that it is hard to do it. I watch my thoughts, like I’m on the outside of them. I can do it for a while, but then the thoughts take over again and I get lost in them. It is hard to get outside of them and watch them again,” I reported.






What is the role of sacred spaces and places in religion and spirituality?  Do they actually have special powers?




Later that day we drove about sixty miles down to Baboquivari, on the other end of the Tohono O’odham reservation. Ben and Leonard Jose took me in their van up a dirt road to the base of the mountain. Leonard explained to me that Baboquivari was the place where the world began. “Elder Brother I’itoi lives there. The mountain is the umbilical cord where human beings came out of the earth after the great flood at the beginning.”




What is the value and purpose of ritual in religion and spirituality?  Do religious rituals have fixed meanings, or can individuals find their own meaning in them? 




“Is this some kind of Wiccan ceremony?” I asked, staring at the rose quartz on her staff. I had been warned by Pastor Bob to stay away from Wiccan people.




“It’s a universal ceremony and dance for peace and unity with the Earth and all its beings,” replied Earth Fire. “We welcome Native Americans, Christians, Wiccans, pagans of all kinds, people of all religions and no religions. We came to Baboquivari because it is a holy mountain, a sacred place where spiritual energy is concentrated, especially at the solstices and equinoxes.”





Then we went and sat with the other men and listened to the kirtan music. Four men with long beards and white turbans sang in Punjabi and played on instruments I later learned were harmoniums. They were like little organs; the musician touched the keys with one hand and pumped air through the organ with a lever with the other hand. The music was plaintive and repetitive, and at times the musicians seemed to be in some kind of ecstatic rapture. Everyone in the room sat peacefully, sometimes singing along. “Hymns to God,” whispered Ajit.




It was the most pure worship I had ever experienced. Just love for God who is love. Just as the prasad had melted in my mouth, my ego dissolved as the music moved through my body. I felt light, floaty, free from any tension. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand a word that was being sung except for the occasional “Nam.”




What are the signs of spiritual leadership?  What gives a religious leader authority and validity?  How can you tell the difference between a false spiritual teacher and a true one?




Lorenzo Dow was poorly educated. He was rejected by the Methodist church in which he started out as a preacher: church leaders considered him to be mentally unbalanced. But his visions and his conversion experience were compelling, and drove him to preach where other preachers would not go, from the frontiers of upstate New York and Ohio down to the backwoods of Alabama. He was known as “Crazy Dow” because of his idiosyncratic style, including his habit of leaping off his horse to preach spontaneously to whomever would listen, on city street corners or in remote settlements. I read that the religious establishment of Lorenzo Dow’s day wanted nothing to do with him. But he had such a powerful impact on people in so many parts of the US and Great Britain that about 20,000 baby boys in the early 19th century were named after him.




Why is celibacy part of so many religious traditions?  What are the reasons for being celibate? 




“Father Crespi, I know it is none of my business. And I hope I’m not insulting you. But I want to know. How can you stand having a job where you can’t ever have sex?”




Father Crespi took off his cowboy hat and smiled. “Let me ask you this, as a way of answering you. How do you stand not having sex?”




Can sexuality be a means for experiencing spirituality?




“One tradition of Siva says he and she were the creator of the universe, so Siva had to have both male and female aspects. Out of him and her came the male force and the female force. After this, Siva was male, and his consort was named Shakti. Together they represented the balance of the sexual energy in the universe. Their physical relationship is the basis of the Tantric tradition.”




“So your gods have sex with each other?” I asked.




“Sacred sex. That’s what tantric sex is all about. Making love as a spiritual discipline. You might enjoy reading the Kama Sutra sometime, on that subject. A classic of Indian literature.”




How much of religious experience is dependent on culture and language?  Can they be separated from religion?  What influence does American culture have on religion, and vice-versa?




Ibn Shams’ face brightened immediately. “Yes, you understand. There is really no way to appreciate the Koran fully except in Arabic. It is a thing of such beauty that no translation can come even close to expressing it. The poetry of it is sublime, but it cannot be experienced very well in English.”







These were questions I posed to Siva in the car on the way back to the Presbyterian Church.


“I wasn’t converted to the Hindu religion. It surrounded me from birth. I took it in like mother’s milk,” said Siva. “But Hari Das is a convert. He had a different experience than I. So it does not surprise me that he talks about our religion in a different way than I do. And I think there is something about the way Americans relate to religion that is unique.”




“What’s that?”




“It seems to me that there is an American way of being religious, no matter what the religion may be. Americans convert to other religions in the same enthusiastic manner in which so many Americans embrace Jesus. Whatever Americans believe, they tend to become missionaries for it.“




“So instead of accepting Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior, Hari Das accepted Krishna as his personal Lord and Savior?” I asked.




“And wants everybody else to do the same. So American,” chuckled Siva.




Can one God have many names?  What is the significance of the name of the divinity in different religions? 




“How many names are there for God in Islam?” I asked.




“Really only one, Allah. But Allah has many qualities, which are the names that go with the beads. Like The Merciful, or The All-Mighty, and so on. One hundred attributes. But only 99 are known by human beings,” said Ibn Shams.




“What about the hundredth?” I had to ask.




Ibn Shams smiled. “It’s known only by camels. Which may be why camels have that funny smirk on their faces all the time.”








Ajit stroked his beard and smiled gently. “Well, maybe our religion is more about what we do than what we believe. I think the most important thing we do is to say and sing the name of God, Sat Nam.”




“Sat Nam?”




“Yes, Sat Nam means The True Name,” replied Ajit.




“Just like the orthodox Jews,” I said. “They say Hashem instead of God. Hashem means The Name. They think the real name of God is too holy to say out loud.”




“Very interesting!” said Ajit. “I did not know that. But it does not surprise me. God’s name is holy, indeed. We have many names for God, but Sat Nam is one we use a lot. We think that if you repeat God’s name with true intention, over and over, your ego will be put in its place and then it will be much easier to do the right things and avoid doing the wrong things in life.”






What’s the difference in spiritual experience between somebody who grew up in a religion and somebody who converted to it? 




My friend, an Islamic scholar, says that the Dar al-Islam people are a classic example of convert syndrome.”




“What’s that?” I asked.




“That is where people from a non-Islamic culture convert to Islam, and become far more pious in the religion than most people who grew up in Islamic societies. Same thing happens in Catholicism. People who convert to Catholicism sometimes become sort of fanatical about it. They say the rosary all the time, join the Right to Life movement, and want to go back to the Latin Mass,” replied Father Crespi.




What is the relationship between religion and violence?  In which traditions is violence allowed or prohibited?




“Well, I grew up out near Bisbee, on a ranch by the San Pedro River right near the border. There wasn’t much to do there at night but read books. Somehow I got my hands on the Journal of John Woolman, a colonial-era Quaker who went a long way toward convincing his fellow Quakers to give up slaveholding. He was constantly trying to bring his way of life into alignment with the light that was being revealed to him.”




“What is this ‘light’ you keep talking about?”




“We believe that the light of God shines in every human being, so we must patiently wait for that light to shine out from within ourselves and others. Because there is something of God in every human being, human life is sacred and must not be destroyed. That’s the ultimate reason for the Quaker position against violence.”





“That’s what nonviolence is all about. It is about action, it’s about doing something about injustice, doing what you can to relieve pain and suffering and lift oppression. We Quakers here in Tucson also call it ‘civil initiative’, actively living out the law of love that is written on our hearts, so that we can live our way into a new law of the land.”






So much of religion is expressed in stories.  What is the spiritual power in story-telling?  Do religious stories also come from the “story mine”?




Dana and Leon leaped out the door and grabbed my legs before Martha could even muster “Hello.” As Dana and Leon giggled, I waddled into the living room with them hanging on my Levis, dragging them along the carpet.




“Did you bring us a story from the story mine?” they asked.




“Yup. I was just there today, getting a fresh one for you. Are you guys ready?”




“Yes. Yes!”







“Story! Story!”




“But I read you a story yesterday, remember?”




“No, no. We don’t want a library book. You read too many library books to us now. We want a story mine book,” demanded Leon.




“I read you library books because you are growing up,” I said.




“But now we want a story mine book,” hollered Dana.




“Okay, okay.” I said, wearily. “You guys pick the book.” I pointed to an imaginary bookcase on the wall of the barn near the barbecue pit and picnic area behind Rachel’s house. The kids ran over to the wall and argued with each other for a moment about which imaginary book to choose. I stared at them in amazement at their innocence, their unworried minds, their joy and eagerness.




Are there stages of spiritual development, just as there are stages of psychological development?




“What should I do?” I asked. “I’m pretty freaked out about it. I mean, my friend is really poor. His dad pawned his favorite piece of turquoise so he could fix the family’s truck. They live out in the middle of nowhere in some beat up trailers with a bunch of skinny dogs running around. My friend needs the money, so he is getting paid by some bad guys to be a lookout. I went out there with him. I swear, I didn’t know what I was getting into. It’s some kind of really bad business, that’s all I know. So what do I do? I trust you a lot. I mean, I trust my dad, too, but you know. He’s my dad. So what should I do?”




“I don’t know. I can’t tell you,” said Cal, whose face was softening with compassion. “Wish I could tell you.”




“What do you mean?”




“How old are you, Josh?”








“Welcome to adulthood,” Cal quietly chuckled.




“What do you mean?”




“Adulthood comes in the moment when you realize that you are the one to make your own moral choices.”




What is the significance of love in different religious and spiritual traditions?




“Oh yeah. Okay,” I muttered as I fumbled to make the presentation. I had to snap out of my meditation on the serious practical consequences of the love between myself and Martha Kopecki and her children, a love I now knew to be as irreducible as the number two, as fundamental as subatomic particles, as real as the oak table in the Portales City Library.




Are there universal moral standards that are grounded in all world religions?  What is the relationship between religion and morality?  Can morality exist without religion?




“Look,” said Pastor Bob, “you are being a relativist. You think that you can’t judge people because their ways are as good as your ways.”




“Well, I guess I do think it might be a mistake to judge people,” I said. “I’m certainly guilty of it myself. But does that make me a relativist? I don’t think everything has the same moral value. Some things are more humane and kind than others, but that has nothing to do with religion.”




“Yes it does. Because God has standards. God has created absolute moral values. And absolute religious standards. I know, you’re out there tasting the nectar of all the flowers in the garden of religions, right?”




To what extent is all religion a “cafeteria” where you pick and choose the parts you want to follow or practice, and drop the rest?




“You think you can be a cafeteria Christian,” argued Pastor Bob. You won’t accept the whole Bible as God’s word. You just pick out the parts you like, and ignore the rest, like choosing food in a cafeteria line.”




“I think you just missed everything I said, Pastor Bob,” I answered. “You are the cafeteria Christian. You pick out the parts of the Bible that support your own moral standards that you like, standards that you decided were essential. You ignore the parts of the Bible that don’t matter to you. You choose the fruit cocktail, you choose the chicken nuggets, you leave behind the broccoli.”






Is God responsible for the evil in the world?




“You know what it is, Martha? I think I’m mad at God for making a world where there is so little justice and equality. Why did God make it so that Americans would have all the jobs and money, and Mexicans would be so poor and have to die in the desert trying to get here? How long does it have to go on, all this suffering of poor people? When people with money have it so easy?”




“You think that is God’s fault?” wondered Martha. “You really think God made things this way? Wasn’t it humans who screwed things up here on earth?”




How does God “incarnate” – show up in human form on earth?  Why is this such a common idea in world religion?  What are the differences and similarities among the religions on the subject of divine incarnation?




“You know who I am, Seedless? I’m not just Joshua T. Stoneburner. I am also Yolanda, in Nicaragua. I am Joao, in Brazil. I am Prajna, in India. I am Lupe and Jorge and Maria in Mexico. I am Kwame in Nigeria, I am Hafez in Mali, I am Rama in Nepal. I am every child you ever loved in every poor place in the world. I am the face behind every letter in those boxes. Even if that World Christian Children’s Fund thing was a sham, and all those letters were bogus. May the people who did this to you roast in Baptist hell for eternity. But you. You. You, Seedless Thompson, are what being human is all about. You are the real thing. We read a bunch of the letters. As I read them, I felt like I had received money and letters from you, from a person I’d never seen in a faraway country who really cared. I couldn’t help thinking those kids’ letters back to you were real, too. I wanted to believe they were real, because I wished I had written one of them myself.




“But now that I know the story, I realize that I am one of those kids. You reached out to me, too, and shared your kindness and wisdom with me many times.




“So listen up, Seedless. Believe this, because it’s the truth, and you know it. I have been sent by Sarla, Kumar, Paula, Rahul, Francisco, Mohand, and all the other kids you loved so much to tell you to come out of your trailer, Seedless Thompson, and accept the thank-you that you deserve after caring so much for all these years. Today is your day, Seedless. Today, after all these years, you will finally get thanked in person, not just in a letter.”




The book ends without Josh choosing a particular religious tradition to follow.  Is he missing something by not doing so?  Can a person make up his or her own religion?



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