The “Art of Being Alone”

As a tween I was enthralled with the book My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George. The idea of living in the woods by myself seemed romantic and adventuresome. Not having to account for my actions was appealing. Living off the land and communing with nature was something I could connect with, at least in my fantasy world.

Sam Gribley, the young boy who basically runs away from his home in New York City to the Catskill Mountains to live on his own, sometimes yearned for companionship even while simply trying to prepare for and survive the winter. As the story unfolds, though, it’s clear that his times of solitude have contributed to deeper thinking and to his personal growth. They’ve also made him appreciate others more.

My practice of alonetime is inextricably connected to examining and evaluating my thinking too. The positive side effect is that this deeper thinking also promotes better health.

For example, last winter I began to experience flu symptoms. It was a busy time and the last thing I felt I could do was take time alone to pray about it. But I took an inventory of my thoughts. I examined them to see if they were reflecting a Divine nature instead of being negative and self-centered. I made a course correction and focused my thinking on the good in my life and the good in others! I thought about how much I appreciated other people and worked to express that gratitude. Within one day all the symptoms were gone.

This isn’t getting rid of all thoughts or focusing on my human mind as practiced in some forms of yoga and meditation.  Rather, it’s a communion with and affirmation of Spiritual connectedness, goodness and completeness. It’s a form of prayer.  And in this sense I’m truly not alone but connected more firmly to God.  It’s a process that doesn’t remove me from this world of activity but helps me be an active participant.

I find this Biblical text especially helpful to guide my alonetime prayers:

“… whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

Others have found that aloneness is good too. Former director of NYU Steinhardt Department of Applied Psychology, Esther Buchholz tells us from her extensive writing and research on the human conditions of attachment and aloneness:

“Now, more than ever, we need our solitude. Being alone gives us the power to regulate and adjust our lives.”

Still, some people find the prospect of being alone with their own thoughts a frightening proposition.  So much so that they would rather suffer some form of physical pain than be alone, as Timothy Wilson, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, found in his recent research.

What would make the difference for any one of us between a frightening versus a health-giving experience? I’ve found that it’s whether we entertain thoughts that make us feel isolated and lonely or cosmically connected to something larger than ourselves.

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We Don’t Have To Conspire Against Good Health

Shortly before an election, a spin-doctor and a Hollywood producer joined efforts to fabricate a war in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal. That’s the conspiratorial plot of a dark comedy in the late nineties called Wag the Dog. Conspiracy theories had a dominant presence in public thought at the time.

Wikipedia notes that “A conspiracy theory is an explanatory proposition that accuses two or more persons, a group, or an organization of having caused or covered up, through secret planning and deliberate action, an illegal or harmful event or situation.”

A conspiracy we often fall prey to is being afraid of what our bodies are up to.

Even though Wag the Dog was a fictional story, it did reflect how many people view why bad things happen. It seems to be human nature to let the unexplained or hard to accept fall on the shoulders of some perceived power “out there.”  We see ourselves as being victimized in some way.

I’m not so sure, however, that the conspiracy we should be most concerned about is the one contrived by the public thinking and discourse. Maybe looking into our own individual thought to see what might be conspiring against our health and happiness would be more useful.

A conspiracy we often fall prey to is being afraid of what our bodies are up to. Wondering about this symptom, that ache, or a sleepless night can be paralyzing.

By doing this, it seems to me that we do, in a way, fall into the belief that there are many forces – which we have deemed “health laws” – outside of our control that directly affect our health. We can’t see these so called laws and yet we buy into many theories and dire predictions without question.  We accept them as de facto, and sometimes sinister, rulers of our bodies and our experience.

There’s an engaging allegory that depicts a criminal trial of someone accused of violating prevailing health laws by nursing an ill friend for long hours without rest or a regular proper diet. Contemporary health beliefs conspired against this generous but hapless man for helping his friend.  Eventually, he was framed by his own fear and got liver disease. As the story plays out, however, the counsel for the defense introduces evidence that this man’s fear was based in a conspiracy to make him ill. But, a higher law of God – that says we are blessed for helping our neighbor – acquitted him once his fear was revealed as the culprit, and he recovered.

The purpose of the allegory is to make a point. Perhaps the Good Samaritan in the allegory could have avoided the arresting situation in the beginning. If he recognized the conspirators as his own thoughts before he fell ill he would never have found himself in court. He could have claimed his freedom from the beginning if he hadn’t conspired against himself.

The trial scene as an allegory is fine for storytelling, but what about our everyday real life experiences? For example, as we age public discourse says we must expect certain negative changes in our health due to biological processes associated with this aging – right?

But, must we?

If we accept this premise without challenging it, we are conspiring against ourselves.

The author of the trial allegory, Mary Baker Eddy, makes this observation about our so-called laws of aging:

“Time-tables of birth and death are so many conspiracies against manhood and womanhood. Except for the error of measuring and limiting all that is good and beautiful, man would enjoy more than threescore years and ten and still maintain his vigor, freshness, and promise. Let us then shape our views of existence into loveliness, freshness, and continuity, rather than into age and blight.”

Time-tables, or predictions that go along with commonly held beliefs don’t always hold up when we don’t hold them up in our own minds.  Researchers have found that to be the case.

Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard University has done extensive research on …”[c]onscious and nonconscious influences regarding the general areas of health and happiness, decision making, aging, and perceived control…”  Her research has shown that thinking differently about aging (and other commonly held beliefs) has a marked effect on health. By refusing to let our own thoughts conspire against our good health and happiness, we can directly affect our aging experience.

Langer’s work goes a long way towards uncovering the conspirators in our minds, but certainly we can go further in getting at the heart of the issue.  It really is a spiritual matter.  As we pay more attention to the ageless spiritual qualities we possess, such as compassion, love, kindness, charity and at the same time challenge our own mental conspirators, we can upgrade our experience of happiness and health.

When we choose a Divine view of things, we don’t have to conspire against our own good health and happiness.

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The Promise of Hope – and Health – Fulfilled

What I know of Christmas today is certainly different than what I knew as a child. Like most kids, then and now, I was really caught up in the magic of the holiday: the Christmas tree, decorations, presents, special treats, and being out of school for two whole weeks. It was a very special time of year.

As a child I was clueless about the sometimes unfortunate backstory of the magic – stress, lack of money to buy gifts (or even to eat), being alone when you’re supposed to be with family and friends, broken relationships, overindulgence in alcohol and so on. I now understand that this special time of year turns out to be the most dreaded for some.

This doesn’t have to be the case, though, even in the most dire circumstances.

A different perspective on this season has emerged for me over the years, and it continues to grow. You might think that my Christian affiliation means that I would see the mainline story of Christmas being the birth of Jesus. But really, that is only the most familiar symbol of what Christmas has to offer.  The birth of Jesus is important because it’s just the start of what he came to teach and show us about how to overcome adversity in life.

“The impact of his presence on earth might best be expressed in this passage…

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

Now, 2700 years after this promise was made, it is as relevant as the day it was offered. What do we hope for?  It could be repaired relationships, finding companionship, financial needs being met, and health restored. This last one, restoring and maintaining health, is perhaps the most important. It’s been the ongoing, consistent quest of mankind throughout the ages. And, the human race has devoted untold resources to alleviating pain and suffering, and prolonging life.

Modern medicine has made tremendous advances. Yet, here too, is a backstory. Much of mankind has not found consistent, good health. Many people simply live in regions of the world where modern medicine is too expensive to deliver – they suffer simply because they are poor.  And, according to many studies, too many are suffering in the wealthy regions of the world not only from an illness but also from the treatment modern medicine has provided.

Jesus’ promise and example was that we could know the truth – about God and ourselves – and the truth would set us free. Certainly, this included freedom from mental and physical illness, broken relationships, financial lack, and any lifestyle choices that would lead to unhealthy outcomes. Why? Because he experienced himself, or through those who came to him, every type of temptation, illness or terrible human condition – and he healed every one of them. He also told us we could do this too.

An experience I had 10 years ago at Christmas time is a clear reminder of the power of Isaiah’s promise and Jesus’ example.

Just as I was about to retire from a 30 year career in law enforcement, I began to experience frightening symptoms that I feared was prostate cancer.  As I struggled with fear of the potential outcome, I pondered deeply the promise of Isaiah and the teachings of Jesus.  I knew in my heart that what Jesus taught and practiced was true. It made sense to me that it had to be.  He healed and taught his disciples to heal. But this was true for me too.  Christian theologian and healer, Mary Baker Eddy, put it this way:

Jesus’ promise is perpetual. … The purpose of his great life-work extends through time and includes universal humanity. Its Principle is infinite, reaching beyond the pale of a single period or of a limited following.

From this standpoint I pondered Jesus’s teaching and works, and the truth about God and myself – that God did not intend for me to be ill or to suffer.  As I held this course over the next couple of months the symptoms disappeared and never returned.

The backstory of Christmas doesn’t need to be stress, hopelessness, illness or despair.  It can be the fulfillment of the promise.   Health is the best gift, and we all have more resources than we know to achieve it. Better than seasonal magic is the hope that Jesus brought to us 2000 years ago. Each of us can experience the promise fulfilled.

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Guiltless Holidays Better for our Health

The holidays are a special time for us – special traditions, special people, and special food.

For many of us, it’s also a time of an abundance of food.

All too often the pleasures of holiday eating turn into a nagging feeling of guilt. Advertising uses this obsession to peddle gym memberships, drugs, and diet schemes.

The public discussion about being healthy centers on how we can change our bodies through the food we do or don’t eat.  But, there’s more to it. Consider this example.

Researchers at Yale looked at two groups given exactly the same milkshake. One group was told that it was a healthy low calorie shake, and the other group was told that it was off the charts with fat and calories. In actuality, the shakes were in between the two extremes.

Those who thought they were getting the low calorie shake showed no change in the production of a hormone that tells you you’re hungry. Those who thought they got the “indulgent” shake, however, showed a sharp decrease in its production, experiencing a reduced craving for food.

It’s one among many studies into what controls us – food or our thought – that should give us pause.

As a student of the Bible, I have found that Jesus gave us one of the best insights into this issue when he taught us this: that food is not the master of our body. He said,

“It’s not what goes into the mouth that contaminates a person in God’s sight. It’s what comes out of the mouth that contaminates the person.” (Matt 15:11)

For me, the main idea is that our thoughts, more than what we eat, are an important factor in how healthy we are. Thinking of ourselves as made, maintained and motivated by the Divine can give us dominion over influences that sometimes are detrimental, such as the idea that food has the power to control us. I’m not saying it’s always easy to change old patterns of thinking about ourselves. But, I have found that when I see health as normal and myself as having a moderate appetite and naturally active throughout the day, the effects can be real. And, for me, they have been more permanent than behavioral changes such as dieting, daily weigh-ins, or obsessive exercise.

As a child Evan Mehlenbacher was overweight, and it carried over into his young adulthood. When he changed his thought about himself and his relationship to God, and let go of thinking food was his master he achieved a healthy weight without any effort after a number of conventional methods of weight control failed him.  His story is a compelling example of how contemplating the Divine can reduce or eliminate the power of food.

This season, let’s enjoy some fabulous holiday food without regret or negative health effects. How we can do that is as close as our thoughts.

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Gratitude Expressed Through Giving To Others Aids Health

A dictionary might define thanksgiving, as “an act of giving thanks”, but I think it means more than that. For me, it has to go beyond uttering words of thanks to expressing it in concrete ways.

In examining my own motives, I feel moved to do for others because I’m grateful for the good in my life which I feel comes from God.

It’s easy to see how the recipient of an act of gratitude benefits, but less clear as to why giving acts of gratitude benefit the doer as well. But, given that all the major spiritual traditions admonish followers to give and promise blessings will rebound, I think it’s about the presence (even if not openly recognized) of the Divine in everyone’s life and the blessings that flow from that.

Stephen G. Post, PhD has been researching this notion that helping others is actually beneficial to the helper. In one report on his findings he writes:

“There is solid evidence to support the perennial hypothesis that benevolent emotions, attitudes, and actions centered on the good of others contribute to the giver’s happiness, health, and even longevity. Although genuine benevolence must be chiefly motivated by concern for others, it has the side effect of nourishing the giver.”

Linda P. Fried, M.D., director of the Center on Aging and Health at Johns Hopkins found that: “Older adults who volunteer in troubled urban schools not only improve the educational experience of children, but realize meaningful improvements in their own mental and physical health.”

Perhaps a good example of this is the Catholic nun who volunteered in our local jail for many years. She devoted her life to helping those in trouble with the law to better themselves through various programs. She lived to be 97 while volunteering well into her 90’s!

Robert A. Barnett says that “We consistently find that volunteering and helping behavior is associated with a reduced risk of mortality. We see this over and over again in prospective studies that control for other variables, such as baseline health and gender.”

Thinking about this more deeply, what if more of us worked harder to love and help others and to be impelled by gratitude for all the good in our lives? Might it make us feel better? Perhaps we would not only be healthier ourselves but also live in healthier, more connected communities. The implications are profound.

I make it an axiom that I can never be harmed by helping others. And, though it’s not my motive, I’m grateful that it also contributes to my health.

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Beyond Genetics for Health

Geneticists report that almost everything about us, including our health, is determined by the code built into the double helix of our 25,000 genes. We have little or nothing to say about it.

But not all health researchers have bought into this predetermined view. There remains an important question: “Is it possible that we have more control than we thought?”

Cell biologist Bruce Lipton thinks so. His research has shown that the environment can have an important effect on the expression of genes regardless of the “code.” He says quite emphatically, “Genes are not destiny!” He goes on to note: “Environmental influences, including nutrition, stress, and emotions, can modify genes without changing their basic blueprint.”

Medical researcher and Christian activist Mary Baker Eddy made a similar observation during her own investigation into sickness and a variety of the treatments of her day. She concludes in her textbook on healing:

Fear is the fountain of sickness…” (SH 391)

If you believe in inflamed and weak nerves, you are liable to an attack from that source. …If you decide that climate or atmosphere is unhealthy, it will be so to you. Your decisions will master you, whichever direction they take…Admitting only such conclusions as you wish realized in bodily results, you will control yourself harmoniously.” (SH 392)

Though there was only the beginnings of genetic science in her day, she observed and taught that, because we are children of an all-loving God, we do have control and can choose health by aligning our thinking and lives with the Divine.

This idea has had a practical impact on my life. At one time in my law enforcement career, for example, I had tremendous responsibilities that others considered to be a pressure cooker of stress — a common source for many health problems. My conscious decision not to view this work as stressful and not to expect negative health consequences, allowed me to handle my duties effectively, and to experience health as a normal and predictable outcome of my relationship with God.

Ongoing research in numerous health fields continues to reveal that we are not predetermined to illness because of our physical makeup. How we think about events in our life can have an effect on our health. Fear and stress are significant negative contributors. Lipton concludes in his book The Biology of Belief:

“If we can control our fears, we regain control over our lives….Letting go of our fears is the first step toward creating a fuller, more satisfying life.”

In my experience, we have a good reason to let go of fear and stress if we understand and nurture our relationship to God. His predetermination for us is health – no matter what genes we’ve been dealt.

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The Crowd And The Win – Better Health

Have you ever thought about how being part of a spiritual community – where you come together with others who share an underlying set of beliefs, values and practices and work together and root for one another – is a bit like being on a sports team and having the so-called “home-court” advantage?

Looking back on my own experience, I feel worship and fellowship have in fact helped me feel like I am on a big team surrounded by a cheering crowd, and it has resulted in a healthier, active life.

The truth behind this idea of the home-court advantage – which simply means the team (or individual athlete) is playing in its hometown – has actually been documented.

In one study out of the University of Delaware, professors and a graduate student found in their literature review of Olympics and the hosting country’s medal count that “ [C]ountries see an increase in their medal market share in the games after they are awarded host status, and then see another increase in medal market share in the games they host.”

For me, this home-court advantage in my spiritual life shows up most vividly when I think of myself as part of a team, the members of which are all tied to one divine Source, living in a universe governed by that same Source.

Christian healer Mary Baker Eddy expressed it this way:

One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfills the Scripture, “Love thy neighbor as thyself;..”

Abundant research supports the evidence that participation in a spiritual community, a team tied to that one divine Source, “…one infinite God…” does affect our health. And, most of the research indicates that it doesn’t matter which actual “religious” community it is. Here are just a few examples:

-Attending church is helpful in the prevention of cancer, heart disease, and mental illness (National Institute of Healthcare Research in America, June 2000)

-Teens who attend church are 4 times less likely to commit suicide (Journal of Chronic Disease, 25)

-There is an additional life expectancy of 7 years (Demography, May 1999)

-People attending church are physically healthier and less depressed (American Medical News, 03/96)”

If a connection to the Divine produces these kind of results, it’s occurred to me that beyond my own faith community, I can even see the whole of humanity as one team, living in one universe, tied to that infinite source. In that light, no one could ever be outside of the home court advantage

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Will Altruism Be The Next Healthcare Breakthrough?

Looking at a problem in new ways can be the source of real scientific breakthroughs.

There was Galileo’s new “view” of the heavens; Einstein’s new view of motion, time and space; and Mary Baker Eddy’s new view on the source of health.

Glimpses of breakthroughs in the medical systems of our time are appearing everywhere. And, they clearly result from the willingness of those committed to health outcomes – rather than health prescriptions – to reframe how we view patients, sickness and treatment.

Dr. Donald Berwick, M.D., illustrates this point using a remarkable innovation from the 18th century. Berwick is President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI). He sees that the development of a revolutionary navigational tool in the shipping industry has lessons for improving healthcare today.

In 1714 the British government offered a large monetary prize to anyone who could develop a sufficiently accurate clock to insure precise longitudinal positioning.  This would solve the problem of ships going badly off course.

A British carpenter and clock maker, John Harrison, took on the challenge.  Between 1730 and 1749 Harrison built three clocks, each successively more complex, accurate, and large. The third one, known as H3, stood almost two feet tall and weighed nearly 100 pounds.

Then, Harrison “…began to realize, after all this time, that he had been following the wrong path with his earlier experimental marine clocks.” He

“…commissioned John Jefferys, a London watchmaker, to make a [pocket] watch following Harrison’s own novel designs. …Harrison discovered that timepieces with a relatively small, high frequency oscillator (such as a fast beating, watch balance)…are much more stable … than the earlier large ‘portable clocks’. “

Berwick uses this fascinating story of solving the longitude problem to talk about the need for similar breakthroughs in health care.

Amid the recognized successes of modern medicine, the problems with health care in the United States are well known: accelerating costs, poor outcomes, underserved populations, overuse of pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures. But what are Berwick’s solutions?  Interestingly, he doesn’t focus on making drug delivery better or managing the human body or more efficient billing systems.

Instead, Berwick has looked in another direction and found that a more altruistic approach to life, including such things as empathy, compassion, justice, and kindness are actually equated with better health.

Although applying these qualities to modern health care would be considered by some as a “new view”, the Bible reminds us that there are practical and timely health results when patients (or anyone) feels truly cared for: it’s been around for a long time when it presents a similar altruistic standard with a promise of better health:

“(f)ree the people you have put in prison unfairly and undo their chains. Free those to whom you are unfair and stop their hard labor. Share your food with the hungry and bring poor, homeless people into your own homes. When you see someone who has no clothes, give him yours, and don’t refuse to help your own relatives. Then your light will shine like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal.” [Isa. 58:6-8]

You could say that making altruism the center of health care in individual lives and systems is like the H4 – the Tour de Force – of health care.

Systems change often begins first with a change in individual thinking and then trying out new practices. Taking to heart the guidance given originally by the Biblical author, and more recently by Dr. Berwick, will give an innovative spiritual impulse to our own health and to the health care system.

We can minimize current mechanical approaches and maximize the heart of health care – an H4 in the making.

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Do We Need Steps For Health?

As a father, I remember many times assembling toys for my children. Some of them were complicated. In the end, when I patiently followed the steps for putting these toys together, I accomplished my goal and the kids were happy.

There are other areas in life, too, where following some steps brings about good results.  The Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program is one that is well known for both its foundation in emotional and spiritual elements and its success.

When it comes to maintaining or improving our health, many are looking for that simple list of steps. For example, Sven Eberlein, a freelance writer and journalist in San Francisco has come up with what he calls 9 Simple Steps to Improve Your Health, all of which are supported by research.

I’m wondering, though, if we really need so many linear steps to achieve every goal or to have good health.

From my view we sometimes over-think our problems, and so our solutions can be more complex than need be. We look for step by step solutions that can be followed without any deep thought.

The following two points of guidance, not really a list, have proven time and again to be effective in restoring and maintaining my mental and even my physical health: love God and love people.  And I’m sure they have for others, too. They’re at least as old as the sacred writings in both eastern and Christian theologies. And, Jesus, among all historical figures, truly demonstrated the power of love to heal. His recommendation for a healthy life might have looked something like this: Love and seek God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself.

Pretty simple. But also profound.

Yes, Eberlein’s list of behaviors, some listed below, are useful if you want to live a happy life:

  • Laugh to your heart’s delight.
  • Age artfully
  • Work with friends
  • Chat with the neighbors
  • Hope like your life depends on it

… but any list could lull you into the belief that just following it will be all you need to live a healthy and meaningful life.

Achieving health isn’t a simple “one, two, three…” without a thoughtful reflection about one’s essential spiritual nature.  The alignment of our thought with the Divine and living a life of love for others can do more for health than any list of steps.

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Taking Responsibility – Will It Make Us Healthier?

Taking care of my grandchildren reminds me of all those parenting years, from birth to watching them strike out on their own. Once my kids left the nest I sort of forgot just how dependent they were on my wife and me for most of their needs. As they got older their dependency shifted to learning to make wise choices on their own.

Depending on others to occasionally help us with decisions is not unwise. But why does depending entirely on others to make decisions about our health seem to be the norm today?

It’s wise to question this since research supports the concept that when patients are involved in their own health care decisions the outcomes are better.

Taking responsibility for one’s well-being is perhaps not a new idea. We find King Solomon’ s wisdom in the following statement in the Bible written around 950 B.C.

“For as man thinketh in his heart, so is he:” (Prov 23:7)

To me this suggests that even 3,000 years ago it was understood that one’s thoughts directly affect his or her experience, including health. And certainly we are responsible for our own thoughts.

Here are two dramatic examples of how people have taken personal responsibility for their health with positive results.

A diagnosis of MS confronted Heather Garden in 1991. The disease progressed until she was unable to walk on her own or use her arms and hands. After being told by her physicians that she needed to plan for a lifetime of MS, she decided to take responsibility for her health, and to make her own decisions. She began a strict regimen of complimentary and alternative therapies. Today, Heather has no symptoms of the disease and leads a normal active life.

One might argue that Heather’s case was an anomaly, or a miracle. But another case of MS tells us it is not and gives us a different perspective and approach. Jane Starrett was also diagnosed with symptoms of MS. Unlike Heather, however, she didn’t pursue a conventional medical approach or CAM treatments. Rather, she pursued a regimen of prayer which resulted in a reversal of the diagnosis. She, too, leads a very active life today.

Fortunately, there is a growing recognition of how important it is for people to be active in taking responsibility for their own health decisions.

When people do this, like Heather and Jane did, the possibilities for finding solutions are as unlimited and unique as the individuals seeking their own path to permanent health.

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    John Clague

    John Clague explores and writes about the relationship between thought, spirituality and health. A retired Lane County Sheriff's Department captain, he is now a Christian Science media and legislative liaison. Read Full
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