The best-laid plans

I love how God changes our plans. I had a plan for my first blog post; I actually had quite a bit of it written. I planned to give a nice introduction to my summer, using a couple of anecdotes and bits of wisdom gleaned from the first few meetings I had with my site mentor Mo. I planned to crack open the window into who I was and what my summer might look like. If this plan had transpired, my first reflection would have been a pretty good representation of my world as I tend to prefer it: organized, coherent, neat, thoughtful, not straying too far outside my comfort zone. As I would find out while sitting in a circle on a living room floor with a group of inner city middle school girls I had met an hour earlier, God had other plans.

WindowsAs tends to happen in life, God didn’t crack the window open so I could peek in and go around to walk through the door at my leisure. He blew that window wide open and pushed me through it, into a place where violence, rape, and sexual assault do not exist as words on a page and thoughts in my head but as an actual heart and mind and body, an actual human, sitting across from me. I had no idea that I was walking into what, as I was later informed, was the hardest night of bible study they’d ever had. No longer could I stay in my comfortable world of thoughts and ideas. The reality of the tragedy, injustice, and pain that these girls face everyday came crashing down on me that evening.

Instead of sitting in a pristine classroom at my prestigious university discussing race theory, liberation theology, and educational performance gaps with other students who think and act pretty much exactly like me, I was hit with the reality of what all the models and statistics and philosophies try in vain to communicate. I had to face the reality that “all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates, a prominent journalist and public voice on race in America, puts it (10). As I have spent the last few semesters discussing in my theology of liberation classes, I saw clearly the power of the embodied encounter with the injustice and pain I have intellectually wrested with over the past years. Like the bones and teeth of black men and women broken by the violence of racism, the window through which I had always peered into “urban life” and “the race issue” was smashed to pieces as I listened to the very visceral experience of one of the sweet, beautiful, joyful girls sitting in that very same circle with me. But as I sat in pain and tears with them, a strange and beautiful thing happened: I saw the sadness and heaviness dissipate and turn into the beginnings of triumph and joy. I saw the power of declaring light into the void of darkness. I saw John 16:33 (“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world”) take on more meaning than it ever has. I saw, very distinctly, the strange glory of the paradoxical Gospel of Christ.

When I left the house that night my mind swirled with quite the assortment of emotions and questions. How could a night that started so heavy end with singing Adele at the top of our lungs as I dropped the girls off at the housing project where they live? What in the world are any of us supposed to do with the reality of the violence that lands upon the bodies of the most vulnerable in our midst? This question turned my thoughts to my reading for the week, Coates’ memoir, which he framed as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son. Coates fills the pages of his memoir with this and many other questions. Although there are many distances between us, I relate to Coates in this propensity to question. My life of order and neatness doesn’t have room for the mess that confusion and not-knowing drag in, so I ask questions and try to make sense of the world. What I have been in the process of learning over the course of the past few years, however, is that even in the absence of direct answers, “the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers” (116).

So, like Coates, I am setting out on my own road laid with more questions than answers, illuminated only one brick at a time as I sometimes tiptoe, at other times sprint, and occasionally trip my way down it. Like Coates, I cannot claim to have any answers, nor do I really think answers are the point. However, very much unlike him, I believe in so much more than the struggle that he says defines all life not lived within the “Dream.” Perhaps this is a naïve perspective, developed through my privileged existence within this Dream that has only ever had the smallest of holes poked through its cozy thickness. But maybe, just maybe, I am right. Perhaps there is hope, a hope that can be found, in my experience, on every page of the Scriptures. I have not often found that these pages hold all the answers, but I have never found anything in this life that holds more hope. This has been true in my easy, privileged, comfortable life, just as it is, miraculously, true in the lives of the girls who I will have the honor of coming alongside this summer, girls whose lives are inconceivably and tragically harder than mine has ever been. Although it might not make sense to Coates, I believe the only hope strong enough to turn those tears of pain and anger and sadness that I witnessed and shared the other night into glimmers of hope washing away, one drop at a time, the dirt and grime of the evil committed, is the hope of the Gospel. As one of the leaders said that night, echoing the cry of a man transformed by Jesus’s healing, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

It seems I ran away again.

Rappahannock CountyIt seems I ran away again. Not away from home nor exactly to it… But to to an unstudied alcove of the serenely bizarre landscape in which I spent my childhood years. Rappahannock County. Just far enough from the bustling streets of college towns and downtown shopping districts. Where rolling hills are cohabitated by retired hippies and good ol’ boys alike. My mama always was a good ol’ hippie. I might have been one, too.

Upon discussing my geographic origins with fellow Virginia natives and university peers, I discovered a general unfamiliarity with this sliver of the Shenendoah Valley. Although it lies a mere hour and forty-five minutes south of Washington, D.C., the rural lifestyle is far from Northern Virginia normalcy. Many UVA students cannot imagine living in a county where the residential population is outnumbered by cows, the closest grocery store is a thirty-minute commute, and the graduating class of the public high school consists of a whopping forty-five students.

What I can’t really explain is the glorious—and quite unusual—relationship between people and land, reminiscent of Helen Macdonald’s portrait of Evelyn’s Travelling Sands. While there are plenty of misty Blue Ridge vistas and luscious forest sanctuaries in which to relish solitude, overall, the county is a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness (Helen McDonald, H is For Hawk).

We have rituals here. Some inhabitants are likely to smudge sage along the river’s edge, honoring nature’s abundance and praying for divine guidance. Others choreograph masked dances for annual pagan theatre performances. Yet another villager burns sacred cow dung in their backyard agni-hotra fire ritual while the neighborhood church holds a Christian baptisms in the local swimming hole. There is a diversity of faith and persuasion, but all is connected to the land.

Green Comfort SchoolA seven-minute drive from my childhood home, I have come to explore the opposite corner of Castleton Village where the Green Comfort School of Herbal Medicine resides. Here, Teresa lives with her family in the lush landscaping of herb gardens, weaving herbal medicine into a practical career, spiritual path and means of expressing compassion for others. The physiological processes of healing are honored in correspondence with its emotional and faith-based dimensions. Such a form of medicine does not condone the sort of antibiotics that can be found in contemporary hospitals or pharmacies. Rather, it recommends the balance of ancient wisdom with modern scientific research, culminating in an integrated means of wellbeing, sense of environmental connectedness, and deepening of personal awareness.

Here we are. Let’s call it home for now.

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Tell Me True

Tell Me TrueMemoir, History, and Writing a Life

Storytellling has always held an important place in human society, but what does it mean to separate fact from fiction in the process? Tell Me True is a collection of fourteen essays from award-winning memoirists and historians Patricia Hampl, Elaine Tyler May, Carlos Eire, D.J. Waldie, Andre Aciman, June Cross, Helen Epstein, Matt Becker, Samuel G. Freedman, Fenton Johnson, Alice Kaplan, Annette Kobak, Michael Patrick MacDonald, and Cheri Register. They show us how easy it is to question the distinction between memory and history, and regardless of the answer, how to tell us true.

In the book’s introduction, editors Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May explain:

“The writers here – historians, journalists, poets, and fiction writers – are also memoirists. They – we – are caught in this complex rhythm, not masters of it. That is the point of this collection. For it is right here, in the contemporary tango of history and memoir, that crucial questions of narrative authority in our times are being resolved. Or perhaps not ‘resolved,’ any more than the mysteries of the past can be ‘solved.’ We have gathered testimony from the field – of play, of battle, of the writing of history and the writing of a life – from practitioners who have to contend with these devilish problems at the level of the paragraph and the sentence. Consider these essays, then, as dispatches from the front lines. The front lines of narrative documentary writing in our times.”

For more information on this book, click here.

Patricia Hampl is the Regents’ Professor and McKnight Distinguished Professor at the University of Minnesota where she teaches creative writing. She is also on the permanent faculty of The Prague Summer Program. Hampl specializes in personal essay, short fiction and poetry, memoir and autobiography, creative writing, and contemporary American poetry and fiction, especially the short story and the novel.

Carlos Eire became a professor of history and religious studies at Yale University in 1996. He specializes in the social, intellectual, religious, and cultural history of late medieval and early modern Europe, with a focus on both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations; the history of popular piety; and the history of death.

Fellow travelers are scholars, activists, and practitioners that embody the ideals and commitments of the Project on Lived Theology. We admire their work and are grateful to be walking alongside them in the development and dissemination of Lived Theology.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. For more recommended resources from our fellow travelers, click here, #PLTfellowtravelers. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: To Live in Peace

To Live in PeaceBiblical Faith and the Changing Inner City

Faith believers are called to understand and respond to the cries of their neighbors facing social and economic struggles in inner-city neighborhoods. In To Live in Peace, Mark Gornik shows us how Baltimore’s New Song Community Church can be used as a model for approaching community organizing and peacemaking within the context of Scripture. A testament to the power of a daring witness, the publication guides the church forward with proposals to overcome barriers to urban ministry and human flourishing.

PLT Director Charles Marsh reviews:

“This groundbreaking book offers us the most pervasively theological account to date of community building in an urban context. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Strength to Love, Mark Gornik’s To Live in Peace is theological writing born of intense human struggle and conviction, a stunningly imaginative and powerful work. Gornik shows us, through both theological analysis and gripping narrative, that biblical faith matters greatly to the social existence of Christians: to the way we locate ourselves in towns and cities as well as to the way we respond to the challenges of civic responsibility and the brokenness of creation. . . I regard Gornik as one of the church’s most exciting theological thinkers, the kind of organic theologian we academics dream about but very rarely find. He’s the real thing.”

For more on this publication, click here.

Mark Gornik is the director of City Seminary of New York. Mark has spent the last 25 years of his life as a pastor, community developer and researcher in African churches in NYC and beyond. His other publications include Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City (2011), co-written with Andrew Walls.

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

On the Lived Theology Reading List: Original Sin

Alan Jacobs - Original Sin: A Cultural HistoryA Cultural History

Controversy has always presided among the various doctrinal interpretations in religion, but perhaps none has created as much friction as that of original sin, the idea that humans are born into this world predisposed to evil and sin. For centuries, theologians have argued for and against the belief, and the debate continues today. In Original Sin, Alan Jacobs takes readers on a sweeping tour of the idea of original sin, its origins, its history, and its proponents and opponents. And he leaves us better prepared to answer one of the most important questions of all: Are we really, all of us, bad to the bone?

In an excerpt provided by HarperOne, Jacobs writes:

“It is the common fate of doctrines to be dismissed; you’d almost think that’s what they were made for… But of all the religious teachings I know, none- not even the belief that some people are eternally damned- generates as much hostility as the Christian doctrine we call “original sin.” It is one of the most “baleful” of ideas, says one modern scholar; it is “repulsive” and “revolting,” says another. I have seen it variously described as an insult to the dignity of humanity, an insult to the grace and loving-kindness of God, and an insult to God and humankind alike. And many of those who are particularly angry about the doctrine of original sin are Christians… What is this belief that generates such passionate rejection and such equally passionate defense?”

Read more on this publication here.

Alan Jacobs is the Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University. Jacobs’s work revolves around multiple interests, primarily literature, theology, and technology. His other publications include The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (2013) and The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011).

For more of “On the Lived Theology Reading List,” click here. To engage in the conversation on Facebook and Twitter, @LivedTheology, please use #LivedTheologyReads. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

PLT summer internship program marks seventh year

Summer 2016 interns begin work in Charlottesville, the Shenandoah Valley, and Jacksonville, Florida

Internship Banner

The 2016 Summer Internship in Lived Theology has begun. Tessa Crews (Col ’16) began her work at the Green Comfort School of Herbal Medicine several weeks ago, and we will begin publishing her blog reflections in the next two weeks. Elizabeth Surratt (Col ’17) starts her internship at Rebirth Community Ministries in Jacksonville, Florida, this week, and Brit Dunnavant (Col ’17), will begin working at The Haven next week.

Tessa, Elizabeth, and Brit mark the seventh consecutive class of the Summer Internship in Lived Theology. During the previous six summers, students have worked domestically in Washington, DC; Richmond, Virginia; Durham, North Carolina; Oakland, San Francisco, and Charlottesville; and internationally in the countries of England, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nicaragua, and Kenya. We have coordinated with 15 community organizations and involved more than a half dozen U.Va. faculty in mentorship roles. Internship alumni have gone on to graduate studies, seminary, Teach for America, and to professions in areas of ministry, nonprofit work, nursing, community organizing, global health, finance, media, and social justice.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.