EDITOR’S NOTE 9/27/17:
Some of you have heard me tell, in person or in an auditorium somewhere, the story of my friendship with Hugh Hefner, who went on to his eternal reward today.
My experiences with Hef back in 2004 were among the most memorable and aperture-expanding of my professional life. He is the reason I try my damnedest to leave preconceptions at the door whenever I meet someone I think I know something about, or whenever I meet anyone. Full stop.
I learned so much more about faith and God and even myself from my conversations with Hef than I did about him. He was incredibly warm and kind and generous of spirit. And he was vulnerable, wounded, and there was a certain sadness that dwelt around the edges of his enormous smile and sparkly eyes.
Ninety-one is a respectable number of years. He didn’t out-do his mother, but he got close. And I’d like to think that wherever he is right now, he knows. Now he knows. All the answers to all the questions from a mind that was endlessly curious about the world, love, and yes, God.
Now you know, Hef. Bless your huge tender heart.
What follows below is the chapter about Hef, based on those conversations back in 2004, from my first book, The God Factor.
May we all have our expectations exceeded and our preconceived notions dismantled more often than not.
When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.
What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.
But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.
“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”
That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his fifty-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, that I thought was hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.
“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”
Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late seventies. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.
“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.
“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you, and that leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”
Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.
“Yes,” he says tensely.
Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.
Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.
“Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”
Has he sinned?
“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”
So, how did he learn his definition of morality?
“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.
“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know … most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual were romantic films, but they are … you know … I don’t know if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”
“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s Harold and Maude.”
“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love Harold and Maude. Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. Harold and Maude is one of my favorite films, and Bud Cort [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.
“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with the teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.
Another movie he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film The Male Animal, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mildmannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that is perceived to be pro-communist. “It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Me, too, I tell him.
“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”
Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.
Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.
Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’
“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.” While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Science church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”
He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.
The couple, who divorced after ten years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)
Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved with the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy magazine offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than forty years.
“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.
“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”
When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”
“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how really good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”
As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their twenties. Located in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are fifty coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cavelike alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)
There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.
“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.
“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”
So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?
“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It is the Golden Rule.”
Love is all we need?
“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”
Me neither, Hef. Me neither.
From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
A few of my friends are consummate thank-you note writers and senders, the latter being the most important part of the thank-you note process.
They always send a thank-you note.
For gifts, dinners, advice, favors, and other kindnesses. It’s not unheard of for one or two of them to send a follow-up thank-you note for especially wonderful thank-you notes they’ve received from someone else.
I, on the other hand, am terrible about sending thank-you notes.
I have beautiful stationary. Several sets. And I’m great about saying thank you and sending thank-you emails or posting thank-you posts on Facebook and occasionally via Twitter or Instagram. But I have a mental block about sending actual, physical thank-you notes.
While I am unsure of the definitive source of this strange block (strange for someone who is, generally speaking, deeply grateful and who says “Thank you” all the time to all sorts of people for all sorts of things, and stranger still for someone who, ya know, writes for a living), I believe it has something to do with my First Communion when I was in second grade. I received a load of beautiful gifts from family and friends and my mother — who still is a consummate thank-you note writer and sender — oversaw my writing of thank-you notes with all the zeal of a hangry drill sergeant.
I’ve had the thank-you note yips ever since.
I still feel badly about the thank-you notes I didn’t send for some of the gifts I received when I graduated from high school almost 30 years ago.
This note (which is one of what will be a several-part series of overdue thank-you posts) is not that overdue, but it is much later than it should have been. If it were a wedding present that I’d not yet sent, I would have about six weeks left to mail that Le Creuset four-quart Dutch oven in Marseille blue from what remains of the happy couple’s registry and still make it under the one-year wire.
Happily, etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute insist that, “It’s never wrong to send a written thank you, and people always appreciate getting ‘thanks’ in writing.” So here it goes.
But first, a little background:
Two years ago I traveled to Nepal for the first a few days after the first of two devastating earthquakes struck the Himalayan nation that had occupied my imagination since I was a teenager. The trip was planned long before the quake struck. When it did, I delayed my departure for a few days, pivoted my purpose from semi-pleasure with a side of social justice to freelance journalism with four duffle bags stuffed with water filters, medicine, and whatever else I could carry with me to help the survivors of the quake.
Suffice to say it was a life-changing trip and I fell hopelessly in love with Nepal and her people.
Then about a year ago, my son’s high school spring break was approaching and we were trying to decide what to do when I had tea here in Laguna Beach with a friend I’d met in Kathmandu. She spends part of the year here and part of the year there where she runs a marvelous group home for orphaned and other vulnerable children. Come visit again, she said. Bring your son.
When I returned from tea I began Googling and quickly discovered that a couple of RT tickets on Etihad Airways from California to Kathmandu and a week’s accommodation in Nepal for spring break were more affordable than most of the other options we’d considered, including Cabo, Dublin, New Orleans, and New York City.
So off to Kathmandu we went, my 16-year-old son, Vasco, and me, for what I imagined might be the last mother-son trip for a while. Manhood approaches and such adventures hold less appeal, at least for one of us.
Even from the west coast, Nepal is far, far away. I’d flown Singapore Airlines on my last trip, but this time we rolled the dice and went with Etihad, one of two national airlines of the United Arab Emirates. We’d flown on thet other, Emirates Airways, to Malawi and back in 2010 when our entire family had to make the journey for Vasco’s adoption hearing. There were a few hiccups, but by and large, the service was good — even in coach. Reviews for Etihad were largely enthusiastic, so I booked our coach seats and hoped for the best.
I used to be a terrible flyer when I was in my twenties, worried that every tiny bump of turbulence was the beginning of the end of my life. Over the years, that fear has disappeared, but a few of my tics and habits from my terrified-to-fly era remain. Namely, every time I board a plane, I pause in the threshold for a moment, put my hand on the side of the plane, and thank God for a “safe, uneventful flight” and for the angels that go with us, protecting us on our journey.
While domestic air travel is something one survives or, at best, endures without incident, hope still springs eternal for international travel where small kindnesses and attention to detail make a huge difference on a 16-hour flight. I don’t recall much about our flight to Kathmandu—and that’s a good thing, i.e., no complaints, no horrible food, no surly flight attendants, no stranger with his seat reclined in my lap for half a day, etc.—except that we were comfortable enough to sleep a little and arrived in Nepal more refreshed than frazzled.
I did, however, remember one thing enough to make a note of it in my journal: before we took off, the airline played a video on all of its screens that included what sounded to me like a prayer in Arabic. I didn’t know what it said, but I found it—the sound of the words, the gentle music that accompanied it—soothing.
My son and I spent a wonderful, if too-short week in Kathmandu with friends of mine who quickly became friends of his, saw a lot of things I couldn’t see the year before in the wake of the earthquake, and made hopeful plans to return someday soon when we had time enough to make a trek along the Annapurna range farther west than we had time to visit. Spring Break Kathmandu was a wild success as a perspective-giving, spiritually-inspiring, bonding mum-son adventure. Mission accomplished.
On our last afternoon in Nepal, before heading to the airport we made a quick run into a neighborhood in Kathmandu where a lot of textiles are sold. I was looking for locally-sourced sheep’s wool to bring home for knitting projects. After a few false starts at dealers hidden behind elaborately carved wooden doors tucked into nooks along a warren of tiny dirt lanes, we found a dealer on the main drag, hopped out of the jeep (that carried at least six or seven members of our host’s family) and bought about 20 pounds of wool, much of it spun but un-dyed and carrying the pungent aroma of its former wearer with it.
In that last wool dealer’s shop, I felt something in my eye. I tiny piece of fiber or a speck of dust. I blinked and rubbed my eye, didn’t think much of it, until a few hours later when my eye really began to bother me. My friend Gautham kindly offered to take me to the doctor in his neighborhood, the same place he takes his own children. We had a night flight and I was concerned about being uncomfortable on the 17-hour ride home, so I said OK and off we went. We found the “doctor” at his stall a few blocks away. He looked at my eye, gave me some drops, and said to try to flush it out with water before we headed to the airport.
I followed the instructions, put in the drops, had our last dinner with Gautham’s family where they prayed for our safe journey home. Born in Bhuthan, Gautham became a Christian as a young adult and now is deeply involved in his local church in Kathmandu. Late last summer, his eldest son married the daughter of one of his pastors. Faith runs deep in the family’s bones, as it does among most Nepalese people, whether they’re Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim or just simple but robust believers in the goodness of mankind.
A few hours later, by the time we were boarding the first of what were supposed to be three flights home to California (Kathmandu to Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi to New York, New York to Los Angeles) my eye was watering nonstop. Not long after our flight from Kathmandu to Lucknow, India (an unscheduled stop to refuel because Kathmandu was experiencing a fuel shortage at the time) took off, I was really uncomfortable. My eye was swollen and I realized the water I was wiping from my eye had turned into pus (think the Beatles’ line “lemon yellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye), and in truth, I was beginning to panic. I called for a flight attendant who responded with calm concern. She brought back the flight purser and they quickly determined I was having a serious medical incident.
They moved other passengers away from my son and me, a precaution just in case whatever was going on with me and my eye was contagious. The cabin crew were wonderfully attentive, bringing me cups of ice and damp cloths. About halfway through the short flight, I began asking to deplane when we got to Lucknow. I wanted to see a doctor, STAT. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the purser, who had consulted with the pilot, strongly encouraged me to stay on the flight until it reached Abu Dhabi five hours later. There, the airline could ensure I received proper medical care. In India, they couldn’t guarantee it. They’d take care of me and my son, who was starting to come down with a nasty chest cold. They’d get us to the United Arab Emirates and a medical team would meet the plane when we arrived.
We made it to Abu Dhabi, the medical team met the plane as promised, put me in a wheelchair and quickly wheeled me to the airport’s medical clinic a few terminals away, while Vasco followed carrying our carry-on luggage. Shortly thereafter, a kindly, efficient doctor examined me, took some swabs (to rule out conjunctivitis or anything else contagious/communicable that potentially preclude me from air travel for a while), gently lifted and turned my eyelid inside out to discover a scratch not on my eye but on the inside of the eyelid itself. It probably happened a few days before, got infected, and then the cabin pressure on the first flight brought it to a head (literally) and it burst.
But at least we knew what we were dealing with. The doctor flushed my eye several times over the course of an hour, administered prescription drops, and sent Vasco with a prescription to retrieve antibiotics from a pharmacy in another terminal. After a few hours, the doctor fitted me with a not-so-swashbuckling eye patch, and told me that I couldn’t fly for 36 hours and only then with the permission of a flight doctor.
Before I could begin to ask about logistics and accommodations and how we’d manage to eat etc., another Etihad employee appeared to collect us, said the airline had arranged rooms for us at the airport hotel (so we wouldn’t have to go through customs and that bother), and had our meals covered, and cheerfully began pushing me in the wheelchair back to the hotel near the Etihad terminal. The airline would check on us and reschedule our flights for us. Just rest, he said.
Back at the hotel in the early hours of the morning, we both crashed. Vasco’s cold was getting worse. He slept for 16 hours uninterrupted. Couldn’t even get him to arise for some food. I kept him hydrated and found whatever over-the-counter cold medicine I could, had several delicious meals at the hotel’s restaurant, and tried to rest while my eye began to heal.
A day later, I walked over to Etihad customer service and was told by a genial man that the airline was working on new flights for us, hopefully a direct flight to Los Angeles so we’d not have to change planes. That was thoughtful. The idea of traveling in coach for 17 hours in the shape we were both in was not appealing, but we needed to get home. I tried to find not-middle-seats online for various flights, but it looked grim.
Heading into the 30th hour of our unexpected layover in Abu Dhabi, we just needed to get home. I walked back down to the Etihad desk in the departures terminal and was told we had a flight early the next morning. They’d assign our seats when we checked in. Fine. We bathed, climbed back into the same clothes we’d been wearing since Kathmandu, grabbed our carry-on bags and headed for the check-in desk. There the gentleman manning the phone asked us to wait for a moment, he had to make a call. My hopes began to flag. What now? More delays? Middle seats? Another visit to the doctor? The kind folks at the Abu Dhabi airport were taking good care of us, wayward strangers in their midst, but we just wanted to be home already.
A moment later, the manager appeared. He looked at the bill-of-health the airport doctor had signed, made a quick phone call, then looked up at us with a smile. You’re all set. Your bags are on the plane and we’ve put you in Business Class to make your flight home more comfortable. Also he was going to walk us through immigration pre-registration so that when we got to LAX, all we had to do was get off the plane and head to baggage. No customs and immigration. That was taken care of in Abu Dhabi.
Please, Mrs. Possley, follow me. Right this way. Your’e all set. And have a safe flight home.
Thank you, I said. Shokran.
It’s been our pleasure and privilege, he said.
I began to cry. To weep, really. I was so relieved and moreover, so grateful for the kindness of strangers. For the gracious care with which Etihad had looked after my son and me, half a world away from our homes, sick and tired and a little bit scared.
Etihad perfectly exemplified the spiritual practice of hospitality, something that is at the heart of Islam, as it is an essential teaching of its cousin religions, Christianity and Judaism. The Quran says, “Let the believer in Allah and Day of Judgment honor his neighbor. Let the believer in Allah and the Day of Judgment honor his guest.”
It also tells the story of Abraham who, when strangers approached his home, welcomed them with greetings of peace, (even though he thought, “They seem unusual people”) and then turned to his household staff and quickly had them roast a fattened calf for the unexpected guests. The idea, as I understand it, beyond just being welcoming is to anticipate the needs of your guests (expected or not) before they even know what they are or have time to ask. It’s a radical hospitality that goes beyond the call of duty, with joy, treating the guest as a child of God.
“The goal of hospitality as an act and as an attitude to life is far more radical; it demands a transformation of the self toward goodness and grace, toward how God wants us to be with one another,”Mona Siddiqui writes in her 2015 book Hospitality and Islam: Welcoming in God’s Name. “At the very base of hospitality is compassion, a compassion that shakes our complacency and leads us to think about more generous ways of being with one another. Compassion creates empathy, solidarity, and has the power to reduce personal and social conflicts. And often it is this compassion toward others which first sows the seeds of surprising friendships—the most challenging but rewarding experiences of our lives.”
When we boarded the flight each of the flight crew members greeted us by our names and with what sure felt like war, genuine smiles. We crawled into our spacious sleeper pods, and Vasco was asleep before we took off. A flight attendant came over to check on us, asked if I needed anything, offered me a glass of juice and a flute of champagne, while I took off the socks I’d been wearing since Kathmandu and put on the soft ones included in the airline’s gift bag.
I leaned back, took out my knitting, put on my headphones, and took a sip of champagne, grateful. So grateful.
Before we took off, the same video I’d noticed when we departed California a week earlier began to play. It’s a verse from the Quran, a prayer that the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers to pray when embarking on journeys.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.
سبحان الذي سخر لنا هذا وما كنا له مقرنين
Glory to Him who has subjected this to us, and we could never have it (by our efforts).
وإنا إلى ربنا لمنقلبون
And verily, to Our Lord we indeed are to return!
صدق الله العظيم
Allah The Mighty has spoken the truth.
Once again, tears came to my eyes. I was overcome with gratitude.
For the gift of travel, very real traveling mercies, and most of all for experiencing radical Muslim hospitality in all its great compassion.
Thank you, Etihad. Thank you to all the brothers and sisters who care for us.
Azak Allahu khair. As salamu aleiykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.
Special thanks to Sheikh Jamaal Diwan of the Institute of Knowledge and Yousif Alanazi for their kind help in translating the dua for travel from Arabic to English.
Jennifer Grant, my dear friend and co-editor of Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, and I are guests on our homesizzle The Rev. Dr. Steve Brown‘s radio show and podcast today.
By the by, Steve, who is (among many marvelous things) Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry at Reformed Theological Seminary, also has a marvelous chapter in Disquiet Time, called “A High Tolerance for Ambiguity,” where he writes in part:
If you’ve stood before God and haven’t been confused, you’re probably not worshiping God. You’re worshiping an idol. Not only that, but God’s ways are circuitous, and whatever you think God is doing, he probably isn’t. If you want to make God laugh, someone has said, tell him your plans. But even more relevant, if you want to make God really laugh, tell him what you think he told you.
Steve, are you leaving and becoming a Buddhist or something?
I’ve thought about it. Buddhists don’t seem to care about diets, and they’re always smiling ; but frankly, I’ve gone too far here to get out. Besides, I hate change, and I wonder who will forgive me and love me the way Jesus does. So I’m probably going to stay— bloodied and wounded sometimes, afraid and angry sometimes , sinful and rebellious sometimes, confused and lost sometimes… and always needy— because I don’t have any other place to go.
I’m just not as sure as my students. And I’m not as sure about God’s ways as I once was, either. Saint Paul asked a rhetorical question in Romans 11: 34: “Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (ESV). The obvious answer is that I certainly don’t, and nobody else here does , either.
Disquiet Time is on sale at Amazon.com for 30% off if you use the promotional code HOLIDAY30 at checkout!
Listen in to Steve’s interview with Jen and Cath HERE or below.
My latest book, DISQUIET TIME: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, a collaborative effort co-edited by Jennifer Grant and myself containing essays by more than 40 of our friends and colleagues who opened their hearts (and a vein) to write honestly and (often) with great humor, about what most confounds them (for better and for worse) about the Bible, released yesterday 10/21.
I’m delighted to say the book has been received warmly, reviews are good, and the early (very early) sales numbers are encouraging.
Many of the contributing authors to DISQUIET TIME along with some of our supportive media friends are in the midst of rolling out a blog tour.
Below are the latest blog posts. I think you’ll enjoy them. They’ll definitely start some interesting conversations.
The blog tour continues through November. Check back daily for updates.
When Cathleen asked me to contribute to Disquiet Time, the new a collection of essays by “the Skeptical, the Faithful and a few Scoundrels,” I didn’t think twice about saying “yes,” nor did I worry much about which category might best fit me.
Cathleen and I have been friends since our roommate days in college, which was pre-email, pre-cell phone, and pre-Kim Kardashian.
Yes, we are approximately ancient.
Anyhoo… The assignment was to write about a passage of Scripture that troubles me. I kept coming back to Proverbs 31—or, as it’s fondly called within Christian circles, “The Proverbs 31 woman.”
Proverbs 31 is an ode to the “virtuous wife,” and often is used as a prescriptive for what a “godly woman” looks, acts, and cooks like. The Proverbs 31 woman is to some circles what Barbie is to elementary school girls — the ideal woman. Never mind that the dimensions don’t add up.
I won’t rehash the essay here, but the nutshell is that I don’t have a problem with the passage itself as much as I have a problem with how it’s typically taught, which is as a primer on domestic divahood. That the Proverbs 31 woman is clearly a working woman is conveniently overlooked by those who choose to use it as a prescription for “traditional” gender roles. (Traditional unless you have to work because you are poor or from another culture or maybe had to get divorced. In which case, carry on.)
I feel like I’m in the Hot Tub Time Machine just writing that sentence. I spent a lot of time thinking about gender roles when I was in college, back in the late ’80s, and it’s kind of funny to me (not funny ha-ha but more funny odd) that I ended up writing about this in Disquiet Time. At this stage of my life, I am too busy being a mother, wife, and professional to analyze it much.
When I read about the Duggar girls (from the TV series 19 Kids and Counting) working so very hard to embody the qualities of the Proverbs 31 woman, I cringe but in the same way I cringe when I watch The Real Housewives series. It’s like being at a zoo and observing exotic animals that are one step removed.
I’m not so removed that it doesn’t cause some disquiet. Which is what this collection of essays is about. Those things in the Bible that you wish would go away, but won’t. Because they have to do with the most profound expressions of what it means to be human.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to wrestle publicly with things that make me uneasy and even irritable.
And I’m grateful I’m not alone in that endeavor.
Linda Midgett is the founder of Midgett Productions, a boutique production company that recently created the hit motorcycle adventure series Neale Bayly Rides: Peru.The series aired on the SPEED Channel in June 2013. She is an Emmy award-winning writer, producer, and showrunner with a proven track record of developing hit and critically acclaimed series. She has supervised more than 600 hours of programming for networks such as NBC-Universal, The History Channel, PBS, The Weather Channel and Investigation Discovery. Her credits as Co-Executive Producer include Starting Over, the Emmy-winning syndicated daytime reality series produced by powerhouse Bunim-Murray Productions; The History Channel’s groundbreaking series, Gangland; and Investigation Discovery’s FBI: Criminal Pursuit.
Though Linda enjoys producing pure entertainment, she isn’t afraid of tackling difficult topics such as poverty and mental health. In 2012, she produced The Line, a riveting documentary commissioned by Sojourners that told the first-person stories of Americans in poverty. The film is available at http://www.thelinemovie.com. Her other independent documentary work includes Through My Eyes, which tells the stories of teens struggling with suicide, depression and eating disorders. Through My Eyes won the national Voice Award for excellence in mental health programming. Linda is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I’m very excited to announce that next week (on Tuesday 10/21), my latest book, DISQUIET TIME: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels hits bookstores everywhere.
Let me tell you a bit about the book, which is quite different from anything I’ve done in the past. First of all, I didn’t write the whole thing. Along with one of my best friends, Jennifer Grant, I acted as co-editor of the book and contributed two chapters to it as well. Jen and I asked several dozen of our cleverest, funniest, most honest and deep-thinking friends (many of whom are writers whose names you’ll recognize) to contribute an essay to the book. The assignment seemed simple but turned out to be anything but for most of us who chose to accept it:
We’ve asked people to write about verses/passages/ideas in the Bible that:
~ most confounds them,
~ they wish weren’t in there,
~ are their guilty pleasure,
~ are a solace in hard times,
~ for those who once embraced the Bible in their journey but no longer do – what is the verse or passage or idea that they still return to, that still has meaning for them when the rest of it doesn’t,
~ for those who once embraced the Bible but no longer do, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? was there a verse/passage/concept that sent you packing? if so, why?
~they love most or hold most dear,
~ makes them laugh or cringe or invariably brings a tear to their eye.
The tone is conversational, humor is welcome, language needn’t be pious or PG-rated. Have no fear of being censored. … In other words, just go for it. Just be as honest and as fearless as you can be.
DISQUIET TIME contains more than 40 essays by our brave, marvelous friends who took off their kid gloves and took on the Bible to honestly (and often with great humor) talk about what bothers/elates/annoys/amuses or leaves them in awe about the “Good Book.” They are men and women; young, middle-aged, and sage-aged; Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and none-of-the-above; evangelical, post-evangelical, Episcopal, Catholic, mainline, orthodox, nondenominational, spiritual-but-not-religious, and “nones”; emergent, emerging, and fully emerged. They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian-American, and none-of-the above; conservative, liberal, libertarian, Democrat, Republican, middle-of-the-road, and with occasional anarchistic tendencies; married, single, divorced, gay, straight, bisexual, parents, and singletons. They are faithful, skeptical, and the odd scoundrel (or dozen).
The result is a chorus unlike any I’ve heard (or read) before. You won’t agree with everything you read in DISQUIET TIME, but you will find something — a gem or two or dozen — that click with, challenge, or inspire you.
Beginning tomorrow and running through November, we’re launching the DISQUIET TIME DISQUIETING BLOG TOUR, where you’ll hear from many of the authors included in the book and a few of our friends who aren’t. Check back here for updates and links to each day’s blog or visit www.DisquietTime.com where each of them will be cross-posted.
We’ve also created a few fun bells and whistles to help share the DISQUIET TIME love.
- Take the DISQUIETING BIBLE QUIZ: Are you Skeptical, Faithful, or A Scoundrel
- If you have an Android phone, download the DISQUIET TIME APP for FREE!
- Interested in reviewing or writing about DISQUIET TIME? Request a digital copy via NetGalley.
I wanted to give you a little taste of what DISQUIET TIME is all about by sharing the book’s introduction. Please take it as an invitation to you personally.
As ever, thank you for all of your support and enthusiasm for my continuing work. It means the world to me.
Hugs and kisses,
WELCOME TO THE LAND OF MISFIT TOYS
An ethicist who can’t make the right choices.
A yogi who’s tempted to pray the Jesus prayer over her children.
A poet at the helm of a global corporation.
A buttoned-up suburban parent with a penchant for Eminem.
A Hollywood producer who dons a superhero costume and proclaims, “Sola Scriptura!”
A female professor at one of the nation’s most religiously conservative schools who has a passion for tattoos and scatological literature.
These are but a few of the souls you will hear from in the pages that follow.
The voices collected in this book are those of nonconformists and oddballs—not-too-distant cousins, perhaps, to the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys from the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion animation television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Not unlike the tiny cowboy who rides an ostrich instead of a horse, the toy train with square wheels on its caboose, and Hermey the Elf―who would rather pursue a career in dentistry than make toys in Santa’s workshop―most of us are well acquainted with the itchy, out-of-place feelings wrought by the spiritual subcultures in which we have sometimes found ourselves.
Some of us self-identify as orthodox (with a small o) Christians, while others feel a flush of pride when called liberal, mainstream, or conservative. Some of us used to identify as Christians or Jews, but now answer “none of the above” (or “all of the above,” as the case may be) when asked to choose a religious label. Whatever our spiritual predilections, each of us seeks an end to the divisiveness and name-calling that too often surround discussions of the Bible.
As diverse as our voices are, they harmonize; and we hear echoes of our own stories in those of the “other.” We learn something new when we hear how a particular biblical passage sustains some people, while other folks continually stumble over (or are repulsed by) the same passage.
We see God’s spirit shining through each other’s eyes as we grant ourselves permission and a safe space to, as Edgar says in King Lear, “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”―even (and especially) when it’s messy.
All the contributors to this book are personally connected to one or both of us. You’ll meet our pastors, professors, mentors, chosen families, and some of our dearest friends, as well as thinkers and artists who have long inspired us.
While we like to say that Disquiet Time is “not your mama’s Our Daily Bread,” we do hope it nourishes, sustains, and even invigorates you as you encounter the full array of these diverse writers’ authentic experiences with holy writ.
Please consider this book an invitation to join a conversation that has been going on for millennia―one that asks only for you to listen and respond with an open heart. We pray that, through reading it, you will grant yourself permission to express your own faith and doubts about the Good Book, honestly and without caveat.
Remember: even if you end up feeling like a cowboy riding an ostrich into the sunset, you are not alone in this. And when it comes to the greatest concerns, biggest questions, and gravest doubts about the Bible, you have the right and freedom to voice them.
God can take it.
Last week in a piece that ran in The Atlantic, I interviewed Noah director Darren Aronofsky about the spiritual message, import, and inspiration behind his epic reimagining of the ancient biblical story. You can read that interview in full HERE.
During our conversation, Aronofsky talked about a prose-poem he’d written as a 13-year-old seventh grader in Brooklyn that was inspired by the Noah story and launched him on his career path as a writer. He recently discovered the actual poem in a box of childhood mementos while searching for baseball cards for his seven-year-old son.
Today, Darren’s representatives shared a PDF of his ‘The Dove’ poem, which you can see below, followed by its transcription.
January 13, 1982
Evil was in the world. The laughing crowd left the foolish man and his ark filled with animals when the rain began to fall. It was hopeless. The man could not take the evil crowd with him but he was allowed to bring his good family. The rain continued through the night and the cries of screaming men filled the air. The ark was afloat. Until the dove returned with the leaf, evil still existed. When the rainbows reached throughout the sky the humble man and his family knew what it meant.
The animals ran and flew freely with their new born. The fog rose and the sun shone. Peace was in the air and it soon appeared all of man’s heart.
He knew evil could not be kept away for evil and war could not be destroyed but neither was it possible to destroy peace.
Evil is hard to end and peace is hard to begin but the rainbow and the dove will always live within every mans’ heart.
Lately it’s been a bumper crop. Here’s what I’m reading these days:
- Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church by Stanley Hauerwas
- Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue
- Jesus>Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough by Jefferson Bethke
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
- The Crowd, The Critic and The Muse: A Book for Creators by Michael Gungor
- UNAPOLOGETIC: Why Despite Evertying, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford
- The Reason for My Hope by The Rev. Billy Graham
AND HOW COULD I FORGET ( not pictured because it literally was under my pillow in bed) :
- STITCHES: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair By Anne Lamott
BAHIR DAR, Ethiopia — When I posted this photograph of a beautiful little Ethiopian girl holding a daisy a few days ago, my friend and fellow author Christian Piatt responded on Twitter with a four-word comment:
“The Face of God.”
Christian’s remark stopped me in my tracks … because it’s absolutely true.
The Bible even tells us so.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. ~ Genesis 1:27
When I look into the eyes of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve met, given high (and low) fives to, fist bumped, hugged, and waived to in the last few days, my thought is always the same: Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
What I didn’t recognize Christian’s profound four words is that Oh my God, they are so beautiful is also a prayer. A “wow” prayer, to borrow an idea from Anne Lamott.
Since Christian called my attention to the face of God, I haven’t been able to look at any of the remarkable souls I’ve spent time with here in Ethiopia without thinking about God’s face.
That Divine Spark reflected in our eyes. Our faces and bodies, hearts and souls all beautifully and wondrously made in the image of the Creator.
Nowhere is the face of God more evident than in the faces of children. They haven’t learned to cover up their divine face with masks yet, like so many of us adults have. Their joy is pure and unfettered, as is their fear and pain.
Below you can see for yourself what I’m on about — the face of God in the faces of a few of the hundreds of Ethiopian children I’ve been immensely blessed to meet on my journey to their truly sacred land. (More on that last bit in a forthcoming post.)
Oh my God, they are so beautiful.
All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners.
Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.
Pursued by the hound of heaven:
Remembering Mark Metherell
It’s hard to believe so much time has passed.
We’re coming up on the second anniversary (April 11) of the day our sweet Mark was killed in Iraq.
On Monday evening in Laguna Niguel, Mark’s mother, Pam Metherell, gave a heart-rending, spirit-lifting talk about faith, family and Mark’s passing.
Mark would have been very proud of his mum.
He is so dearly missed by all who knew and loved him.
Up there in the heavenly realms, surfing with Jesus.
Into the fire …
President Obama, the First Lady and the Bidens began inauguration day at St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House (and literally across the street from the Hay Adams hotel where the Obama family stayed for a time in run-up to the inauguration before moving into Blair House.)
During the 70-minute service, Bishop TD Jakes preached on a passage from the Book of Daniel:
“Then Nebuchadnezzar was filled with wrath, and his facial expression was altered toward Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. He answered by giving orders to heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated.”
It’s the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego — three righteous Hebrew young men who angered the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar by refusing to worship a golden image he had created. So he tossed them in the fire – a really really hot fire. But God preserved them.
An interesting choice of scripture for the incoming president to hear before taking his oath of office.
Here’s what the official pool report from inside St. John’s had to say about the worship service at what has become known as “Church of the Presidents” since President James Madison first attended (the 54th pew is reserved for the president):
After a brief reading from Rabbi David N. Saperstein and a solo singing performance by Yolanda Adams, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell – Pres. George Bush’s spiritual advisor – introduced the speaker: Bishop T.D. Jakes
Jakes read from Daniel 3:19 and used the scripture to offer Obama a series of four lessons for his administration.
1 – “In time of crisis, good men must stand up. God always sends the best men into the worst times.”
2 – “You cannot change what you will not confront. This is a moment of confrontation in this country. There’s no way around it…This is not a time for politeness or correctness, this is a time for people to confront issues and bring about change.”
3 – “You cannot enjoy the light without enduring the heat. The reality is the more brilliant, the more glorious, the more essential the light, the more intense the heat. We cannot separate one from the other.”
4 – “Extraordinary times require extraordinary methods. This is a historical moment for us and our nation and our country, and though we enjoy it and are inspired by it and motivated by it.”
After his four lessons, Jakes turned from the crowd and looked directly at Obama.
“The problems are mighty and the solutions are not simple,” Jakes said, “and everywhere you turn there will be a critic waiting to attack every decision that you make. But you are all fired up, Sir, and you are ready to go. And this nation goes with you. God goes with you.
“I say to you as my son who is here today, my 14-year-old son – he probably would not quote scripture. He probably would use Star Trek instead, and so I say, ‘May the force be with you.”
Monsignor William A. Kerr delivered a brief prayer for Biden and then the Rev. Otis Moss Jr. delivered a blessing for Obama.
Moss Jr. [whose son, Otis Moss III, is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Obama’s former church home] said: “Give to president Obama a double measure of faith and hope, and the strength to do justice…Give him the sight to see all that needs to be seen and the insight to look beyond the clouds and chaos of the moment and see great joys and possibilities. Let the house where he lives and serves be a house of hope for the nation, a house of joy and affection for his family, and the house of friendship for all nations. We thank you eternal god, for our new president, president elect Obama.”