Flower Mandalas


Stained Glass, Toronto, Ontario
(Click here for a “mandalaized” view)
Tom Neufer Emswiler is a retired United Methodist minister who has been teaching courses in literature and spirituality. He speaks, here, of his background as a minister and his lifelong involvement with the arts, teaching, and spirituality.
Please tell us something of your background — what you do, where you are doing it, and anything else that you feel we ought to know about you?
I am a retired United Methodist minister who for 35 years served small, medium and large churches in Kansas and Illinois and two campus ministries at Illinois State and the University of Illinois. My wife is also an ordained United Methodist minister and we had the privilege of serving most of the time together in appointments. She is also now retired.
Since retirement I have been pursuing my interest in literature and spirituality by teaching a number of courses at our local Communiversity (a non-credit adult learning opportunity sponsored by the university YMCA. I also am now teaching a longer course in “The Short Story: A Pathway to Explore Spirituality” at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Illinois. I have also led some discussion groups using short films that have spiritual dimensions. I LOVE retirement because it gives me much more time to read, listen to music and be with friends. My wife and I also do food delivery each month to needy people through our church, share regularly with a small group from our church and belong to a lively group who eat a meal together each week.
How did you get interested in the relation between faith and the arts and how long have you pursued this interest?
I have loved the arts from early childhood on. I was taking piano lessons before I was five. I majored in piano my first two years of college and then switched schools and majors and ended up with majors in English and Social Science with emphasis in Philosophy and Political Science. I then went on to do graduate work in Theology. After receiving my degree in theology I went on to another school to do an M.A. in preaching and communication theory. For my thesis I planned and tried out on several small groups a course in Teaching Theology through the use of contemporary short stories. I have continued to teach courses in this area whenever I could work them in at the various ministry settings where I served. I have always been impressed to see how well most people liked these experiences. They enjoyed reading good artistic short stories and grappling with their meanings together. They also liked sharing personal experiences triggered by these stories and also learning of some of the spiritual dimensions such stories may open up.
What is your background in writing and teaching?
I have taught wherever I served and that this teaching is actually picking up in retirement. In a couple of the churches where I served I was the minister of education. I have also written or co-written with my wife 10 books and had over 100 articles published in various magazines. My wife and I have had the privilege of leading workshops around the country on Inclusive Worship. I also edited an international journal on Christmas stamp collecting called the “Yule Log” for four years. I have just recently given up this responsibility.
In what ways are you working on these concerns right now?
Mostly through teaching, reading and thinking. I have not done a lot of writing for publication for several years.
Have you had personal experience in seeing how the arts help in healing?
The courses I have taught have all so far dealt more generally with spirituality and literature. I have not seen the physical healings that I have read about in some of the literature on healing through writing. I have seen psychological healing take place, however, in my courses.
What kinds of changes have you seen in your students?
Most of what I have seen has been improvement in attitude and a new degree of happiness. In one of my poetry courses I invited members of the class to share, if they wished, a poem they had written. One man, who had faced great tragedies in his life, wrote a poem filled with darkness and pain. I think he was genuinely helped by releasing some of this through his writing and sharing it with a small, caring group.
I’ve also experimented with using writing as a healing tool. Currently, I’m doing a group called “Memoirs of Addiction and Recovery,” in which the group members write about their experiences in recovery. Any plans to do a writing workshop oriented around spirituality?
I’m working up the courage to offer courses in Healing through Writing. I might even try an online course in this area after I have been through a couple of in-person ones. I may also try to produce a book in this area or in the broader area of Literature and Spirituality.
What suggestions do you have for Flower Mandalas blog readers who may want to form a reading or writing group of their own that deals with spirituality and literature?
One book that would be very helpful is How to Read a Poem…and Start a Poetry Circle, by Molly Peacock. This is a great book on how to read and understand poetry but it also includes a helpful chapter about starting a poetry circle. I taught a course using this book about a year ago and have a few extra new copies. If anybody wants one of these paperbacks, I would be glad to sell one to them for less than half price. Many of Peacocks’ suggestions would also work for forming a group studying short stories or novels and spirituality.
To find people who are interested in such a group talk with your friends, write an article for your local paper, and see about running a brief note in church newsletters. Also, you may be able to develop a short-term course on literature and spirituality to teach at an adult learning center in your area. You might even get modest pay for teaching such a group. Also, public libraries and larger bookstores are often happy to help get such groups formed and provide a place for them to meet.
What resources do you recommend in the area of healing and poetry and healing and creative writing?

  • Poetic Medicine: the Healing Art of Poem Making, by John Fox. There is a national organization of Poetry Therapists and you can find out about them by doing an internet search.
  • Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives, by Louise DeSlvo. Louise has taught a university course in this area for some time and she shares how she does this and some of the amazing results she has experienced.
  • A Pen and a Path—Writing as a Spiritual Practice, by Sarah Stockton. I received this book as a gift and have not yet read it but it looks great and comes highly recommended.

What resources do you recommend in the area of spirituality and literature?

  • Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul, selected and introduced by Judith Valente and Charles Reynard. I LOVE this book. Wonderful, thoughtful, personal sharings by the editors and a great selection of poems.
  • Ten Poems to Set You Free, by Roger Housden. This is part of a series of “Ten Poems” books by Housden. All that I have read and taught have been most worthwhile. Great selection of poems and thoughtful, passionate commentary.
  • Listening for God, ed. by Paula J. Carlson & Peter S. Hawkins. Vols. 1, 2, 3, and 4, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2003. All these volumes are great and designed to be used with a small group. Great short story selections and commentary.
  • Faith Stories, by Michael C. Curtis, ed.
  • God Stories, by Michael C. Curtis, ed.
  • Angels and Awakenings—Stories of the Miraculous by Great Modern Writers, ed. by M. Cameron Grey.
  • A Celestial Omnibus—Short Fiction on Faith, edited by J.P. Maney and Tom Hazuka. I am teaching this text right now and really enjoying the short stories.

What works of literature have you found personally inspirational or healing, and how have they changed you?
All of the books I have just cited are answers to this question. I love literature and have been touched by many, many books over the years. In addition to the works cited I would list the Bible, poetry by Rumi, Emily Dickenson, and Mary Oliver and I could keep on listing books and authors for a long, long time.
Tom’s Beliefnet community profile:> SpiritSing
e-mail: Tom Neufer Emswiler
snail mail: Tom Neufer Emswiler, 4402 Doverbrook Dr., Champaign, IL 61822
Art, Healing, and Transformation group
Flower Mandalas Project group

© 2008, Tom Neufer Emswiler and David J. Bookbinder

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