According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Friday, May 29, 2015

Author Phyllis Tickle faces death just as she enjoyed life: ‘The dying is my next career’

Phyllis Tickle is a Southern-born and -bred mother of seven and a doyenne of religion writers.
She is now 81, and a widow living on a small farm in Lucy, Tenn., just outside of Memphis.
On the land where her cows once roamed, stray dogs she has adopted and some family
surround her. She is being treated for Stage IV cancer.
Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Author Phyllis Tickle faces death just as she enjoyed life: ‘The dying is my next career’

by David Gibson
May 22, 2015

LUCY, Tenn. (RNS) Over the past generation, no one has written more deeply and spoken more widely about the contours of American faith and spirituality than Phyllis Tickle.

And now, at 81, she’s working on her final chapter: her own.

On Jan. 2, the very day her husband, Sam, succumbed to a long and debilitating illness, Tickle found herself flat on her back with a high fever, “as sick as I’ve ever been” and racked by “the cough from hell.”

The fever eventually subsided, but the cough wouldn’t let go. When she finally visited the doctor last month, the diagnosis was quick, and grim: Stage IV lung cancer that had already spread to her spine. The doctors told her she has four months to live, maybe six.

“And then they added: ‘But you’re very healthy so it may take longer.’ Which I just loved!” she says with her characteristic sharp laugh.

Indeed, that’s the kind of irony that delights Tickle, even in sober moments like this, and it embodies the sort of dry humor and frank approach that leaven even her most poignant, personal reflections. It’s also central to the distinctive style, delivered in a rich Southern register, that has won her innumerable fans and friends who will be hard-hit by the news of her illness.

Phyllis Tickle and one of the stray dogs she has adopted on her farm in Lucy, Tenn.
| Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Tickle has been writing almost since she can remember, with poetry the focus of her earliest efforts. At 21 she married Sam Tickle, a medical student and childhood friend from Johnson City, Tenn. He went on to become a doctor; she took a variety of teaching jobs and launched the first of what would become a series of publishing ventures.

But Tickle really began to achieve prominence when she was recruited by Publishers Weekly in the early 1990s to start its religion division. Then her first “big” book, “Re-Discovering the Sacred: Spirituality in America,” came out in 1995, followed two years later by “God-Talk in America.”

In poems and essays, homilies and memoirs, countless public talks that explored sociology and history and the next big thing, Tickle has diligently mapped the pathways of the heart and the demographics of the soul while becoming one of the nation’s leading public intellectuals on all things religious.
‘Am I grateful for this? Not exactly. But I’m not unhappy about it.’

Even after she wound down her career on the lecture circuit last year — at 80 she decided she’d rather not spend up to 40 weeks a year on the road and away from her ailing husband and their beloved farm north of Memphis — Tickle was still in good form. Her puckish humor and youthful vigor always pulled her beyond the travails of the day and kept her focused on future writing projects and a couple gigs as a visiting professor.

She’s best-known for a range of essays and books on faith and life, most notably and successfully her series on “The Divine Hours,” about the power of daily fixed-hour prayer. (Raised a Presbyterian, Tickle was drawn to the Episcopal Church and its liturgy and has called herself “the world’s worst, most devout evangelical Episcopalian.”)

In 2008, her landmark work, “The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why,” probed how a new and vibrant Christianity is recovering elements of the past and carrying them into a whole new future. That’s a theme she continued to develop in a 2013 book, “The Age of the Spirit: How the Ghost of an Ancient Controversy Is Shaping the Church.” She has yet more to say on that, cancer permitting.

Phyllis Tickle. | Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Taken together, Tickle’s works combine the sprawling scope of historian Karen Armstrong with the fine-grained command of sociologist Robert Bellah and the rural sensibilities of poet Wendell Berry. Throw in a dash of Thomas Merton’s sense and spirituality for good measure.

“Tickle has earned her place as one of the modern spiritual masters of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” her friend and occasional collaborator Jon Sweeney writes in the introduction to an upcoming selection of Tickle’s writings in Orbis’ Modern Spiritual Masters Series.

What’s just as impressive is that she did all this and raised six children — a seventh, a son, died just two weeks after he was born — mostly on a 20-acre working farm, where the family moved in 1977. It was a big change for the kids after living for years in the upscale Central Gardens neighborhood in Memphis.

“They hated it,” Tickle says in her Tennessee drawl. But they love the country life now, and the Farm in Lucy, as she calls it, has always been a backdrop, or even a character, in much of her work.

In spite of this impressive literary lineage, however, it is the cancer that is shaping the last chapter of Tickle’s life.

And yet, she displays a remarkable equanimity in the face of this final, and most merciless, deadline.

“At 81 you figure you’re going to die of something, and sooner rather than later,” she says, sitting at her kitchen table for her first interview about her diagnosis. “I could almost embrace this, that, OK, now I know what it’s probably going to be, and probably how much time there is. So you can clean up some of the mess you’ve made and tie up some of the loose ends.”

“I am no more afraid of dying than I am of, I don’t know, drinking this coffee,” she continues, pointing to her mug. (It’s actually filled with Postum since she’s had to give up caffeine. She remains, thankful, though, that she can still drink a nightly whiskey. “Jack Daniels, of course!” she says, shocked at the suggestion that a Tennessee native would drink anything else.)

During a morning-long conversation, Tickle is regularly interrupted by a nagging, sometimes racking, cough that alternates with her signature laugh. “This is part of it,” she says matter-of-factly.

Her once boundless energy starts to fail by midday. She started radiation treatment on Thursday (May 21), mainly in an effort to forestall the possible collapse of her spine, which would leave her helpless and in intractable pain. “That sounds a little formidable to me,” she says. “I was never much for suffering.”

She goes on, her words carefully chosen. “Am I grateful for this? Not exactly. But I’m not unhappy about it. And that’s very difficult for people to understand.”

Phyllis Tickle walks the farm where her cows once roamed.| Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle walks the farm where her cows once roamed. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.
‘It’s a gift’

How then, did Tickle reach such a state of grace so quickly and, seemingly, easily? Is it the wisdom of age? Years of religious practice? Or the relentless attempt, as Sweeney has written of her, “to come to terms with the essentially and elusively spiritual in the world about her”?

Tickle’s answer is as surprising as the revelation of her diagnosis: She had a near-death experience at 21, she says, thanks to an experimental drug she was given to try to prevent a miscarriage.

In the middle of the night, she stopped breathing; her husband, a medical student at the time, was able to revive her long enough to get her to the hospital.

“Mine was a classic near-death. So, not much to say,” she begins. “I was dead.

“I was like a gargoyle up in the corner of the hospital room,” she continues. “And I remember to this day looking down and watching Sam beat on me again and screaming for the nurses, and the nurses coming with the machines and the whole nine yards. And then the ceiling opened and I just went out the corner and into a tunnel, which was grass all the way around. Ceiling, sides, the whole thing.

Phyllis Tickle’s glasses rest on a large piece of paper where her creative scribbles lie
until they find their way onto real pages.
| Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle’s glasses rest on a large piece of paper where her creative scribbles lie until they find their way onto real pages. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“And I went to the end of the tunnel to this incredible — people call it ‘the light.’ I guess that’s as good a name as any. But an incredible peace, a reality, unity, whatever. The voice, which was fortunately speaking in English” — she laughs again — “said, ‘Do you want to come?’ And I heard myself saying, ‘No, I want to go back and have his baby,’ meaning Sam.”

She recalls that she turned around and went back down through the hole in the ceiling and into her body.

It’s a startling story coming from Tickle, and one her husband admonished her never to speak about, much as she wanted to. For him, a medical professional, it was simply a result of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. “That’s not religion,” he would say.

Years later, he himself had a few uncanny spiritual experiences that softened his opposition, and in recent years she began to speak a bit about her episode, most recently and expansively to a television crew that’s making a documentary on end-of-life experiences.

“You’re never afraid of death after that,” Tickle says of her long-ago taste of mortality. “I’m sorry. You could work at it but you’d just never be afraid of it. … You don’t invite that kind of thing. It’s a gift. It’s not like you can prepare for it or anything. It’s part of the working material you’re given.”
‘Christianity isn’t going to die!’

Yet it isn’t material she has ever used — though that could change.

Tickle had been mulling a book on aging before her diagnosis, and she hopes to finish it, knowing that it will probably be informed by her new perspective. “I hope it won’t be another model, ‘this-is-how-we-die’ thing,” she says. “If it veers over to that I’ll be the first to burn the manuscript. Or pull the plug.”

She is also assembling a collection of her poems, though she is not as high on them as others are: “I would have been a poet had I had the skill or the gift. What I have is a very little skill and a very moderate gift.”

Phyllis Tickle in her bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed made by her
great-grandfather and surrounded by other family furniture and her books.
Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

Phyllis Tickle in her bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed made by her great-grandfather and surrounded by other family furniture and her books. Religion News Service photo by Karen Pulfer Focht

This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

She’s also chewing over another “big picture” book on what she sees as a “rapprochement between Western Judaism and ‘emergence’ Christianity,” and just musing on the idea starts her on a riff on the transformation of religion after the Reformation, which she then seamlessly links to the blockbuster Pew Forum survey earlier this month that showed Christianity quickly losing ground in the U.S. as the number of unaffiliated “nones” spikes sharply.

It’s all grist for Tickle’s mill.

“Christianity isn’t going to die!” she exclaims, almost offended at the suggestion. “It just birthed out a new tributary to the river.”

“Christianity is reconfiguring,” she says. “It’s almost going through another adolescence. And it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.”

For Tickle, the most interesting cohort in the survey is not the usual “spiritual but not religious,” but the “neither spiritual nor religious” who get “lost in the shuffle” but are in fact the key to the future of faith.

“There is an honesty in their conversation and self-understanding that, it seems to me, makes them much more open to conversation and analysis and perhaps, ultimately, to persuasion than is true for other groups,” she writes in a follow-up email. “I may be wrong, but I am, as I say, fascinated.”

Yet, that will have to be another book for another author.
‘If that makes me a mystic, so be it’

As she reflects on her life, Tickle says she has always seen herself as a listener, something she admits may surprise those who know her literary output and her gift of gab.

It’s an inner voice, she says, that has always told her what to do, what was coming next in a life filled with so much variety. And it’s a voice she has always obeyed.

“It’s the truth. Just like I’m told to do this,” she says, referring to her terminal illness. “Which is why it doesn’t bother me. The dying is my next career.

“You can call it whatever you want to. Spooky? I hate the word ‘mystical.’ It has such a cachet now. Like an exquisite and high-priced perfume. But if that makes me a mystic, so be it.”

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