The pressure cooker

Oftentimes, I find that theological reflection is like trying to navigate terrain that I have never visited before. It can seem that whenever I make progress in one direction, something from miles behind me draws me back to the start. A multitude of forces can inspire this reconsideration, which continually renews my perceptions of the world around me. It is both infuriating while at the same time the reason that I have always been drawn to this form of inquiry. What is unique about this “theological reset button” is that it can be pressed by even the slightest suggestion found in an email from one of your advisors. It was curious how this one piece of advice slowly crept into every thought since I read it, making it impossible to write about anything else. On its own merits, this small idea has shown me the nature of theological reflection as it slowly takes my mind to depths I had never considered. Theology is like a slow cooker. If you rush too fast for inspiration, the theological dish will come out incomplete; however if you give it plenty of time to cook, it will become richer, deeper, and easily connected to our own personal histories. I feel that I didn’t give this cooker enough time when I submitted my post two weeks ago. Eager to write and naïve to the slow nature of theological development, I let my mind run wild. Inspired by the words of one email from Shea, the PLT staff member who directs the internship program, I would like to return to the idea of my Haven routine originally presented in the post on washing dishes with Lee.

Before I begin, I still stand by everything I learned before, which I described in my original post. My new reflections on this topic in no way negate what I learned the first time around. That moment on its own pushed me outside my comfort zone into new theological ground to map out. It was because of the bursting of my comfort bubble that it is even possible to expand upon the ideas of the routine. That being said, I fear I have swung too far to the other side of the argument. In lifting up the spontaneity of moments with Lee, I wonder if I have downplayed the importance of routine. The email I received from Shea had one simple question: “how might [the routine] be forming you?” For two weeks, that question has swirled around in the slow cooker, and I hope now that my theological feast is more “well done.” My post did a good job examining the harmful effects of what Shea referred to as “dry ritual.” Rather than being perceptive enough to see the theological implications of my work, I let my ritual lull me into a theological slumber where I was preoccupied by the exoteric job of dishwashing and not with the more esoteric lessons of working at the Haven.

But what would completely discounting a routine look like? An anarchic volunteer schedule with zero consistency? Rationally, that is not a practical way to run an intake program that requires consistent volunteering to function. Along the same line, if I came at regular times but jumped around from looking for encounters and chasing the next theological breakthrough, I would be a nightmare to the kitchen supervisor and the other volunteers who would pick up my slack. Obviously, a synthesis is in order. How can Dorothy Day and Peter Maupin open “houses of hospitality” that operate on a strict schedule but still give Day the feeling that “there was to be no end to my learning” (Loaves and Fishes, 14). How can the Open Door Community stave off the temptation to be complacent in what they are doing? Has Ekblad ever experienced a Bible Study where he felt like he was going through the motions and there seemed to be no theological value to the discussions? Even while meditating on these questions now, I see their weighty significance.

Church Aisle

The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when I met with Professor Warren. Sitting at a table on the outdoor patio of the Bodo’s on Main Street, we discussed the physical division of a church into the sacred characterized by the altar, the pews of humanity facing the sacred and finally the middle aisle that creates a bridge between the sacred and the everyday. A physical representation of a mental and spiritual space, this middle ground is where humanity is receptive to the spiritual while God reveals himself to the people. It is in this conception that a routine becomes so vital to theology. A weekly or daily routine sets up this “aisle space” where theological work can occur. Whether this comes in the form of receiving communion on a weekly basis or having a schedule of work at the Haven, this routine gives the human a chance to enter into the aisle, navigate the terrain, and fire up the slow cooker. I just have to be patient and observant enough to notice when the sacred breaks into my routines and reshapes my theology. Lee and the washing of dishes didn’t just come out of left field to change my outlook and refocus my eyes on what is important. The routine of being in the Haven kitchen every morning opened up the possibility of the divine in-breaking that reformed my theological thought. As a result, theological reflection becomes a response to the lessons presented to me in this routine rather than an inconsistent yearning for the next profound moment. Furthermore, the burden of theological creativity is shifted away from my finite mind and onto the God of the universe who educates me through Lee and washing dishes, a dollar bill, the words of Henri Nouwen and tomatoes.

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.

When we suffer


A gentle breeze traces its fingertips across my cheek and through my hair. As the wind gathers speed, I watch branches sway with a vibrant display of pulsing foliage. The Earth exhales audibly, and I am surprised at how reminiscent this sound of the rustling forest is to my memory of waves crashing upon the Baltic coast. Both seem to whisper, hush.

My own fingers return to the worn, but sturdy pages of my summer reading. Their color is precisely that of the cream-line milk I picked up from my neighbor’s farm on Saturday morning, a great blessing in a world of flash-pasteurization and homogenization. Mind racing to angelic pastures and milk-laden riverbanks, still I lament for large-scale normalcy of slaughter within our dairy industry and pray that I can somehow help reduce ­their suffering.

Jar of Milk

My attention now turns to the human form of suffering in  In a vivid portrait of pain, his initial moment of revelation is presented through the story of a seven-year-old burn victim. He paints the following image.

As a medical student, he was asked to simply hold her uninjured hand for the purpose of calming her down and allowing the surgical resident to remove the dead skin from her body. Although he tried to distract her from her own screams by asking about home, family school… the confrontation with extreme pain surpassed his attempts at small talk.

I could barely tolerate the daily horror: her screams, dead tissue floating in the blood-stained water, the peeling flesh, the oozing wounds, the battles over cleaning and bandaging. Then one day I made contact (Kleinman, xii).

Out of despair, he resorted to more honest inquiry. His question was simple:

How do you tolerate this pain? What does it feel like day after day?

She responded initially with shock and ultimately… honesty. Gripping his hand more tightly, she began to narrate the pain. No more screaming. Now she connected him to a sensation that moments earlier left her isolated in extreme suffering.

The purport of this story is that “the experience of illness has something fundamental to teach us about the human condition, with its universal suffering and death” (Kleinman, xiii). Beyond prescribing illness, a medical practitioner must cultivate compassion for the actual patient because ultimately, the process of healing is one that connects us to the Earth, its inhabitants, and God.

For members of Western societies, the body is a discrete entity, a thing, an “it,” machinelike and objective, separate from thought and emotion. For members of many non-Western societies, the body is an open system linking social relations to the self, a vital balance between interrelated elements in a holistic cosmos. Emotion and cognition are integrated into bodily processes. The body-self is not a secularized private domain of the individual person but an organic part of a sacred, sociocentric world, a communication system involving exchanges with others (including the divine) (Kleinman, 11).

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On the Lived Theology Reading List: Inventing Peace

Inventing Peace: A Dialogue on Perception by Wim Wenders, Mary Zournazi book coverA Dialogue on Perception

In a world filled with so much violence, hate, and injustice, are we truly seeing reality for what it is? In Inventing Peace, Wenders and Zournazi ponder this question and the consequences for seeing the world and peace in the midst of an answer falling short. They tackle this idea as one of today’s most fundamental issues, arguing that a change must be made to our everyday perception and a new visual and moral language for peace be formed. Written in the form of a dialogue, the publication draws inspiration from a variety of disciplines to offer unique means in pursuing and perceiving peace.

Pennsylvania State University’s Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Alphonso Lingis, reviews:

“The word ‘peace’ evokes vague and negative images. We see violence and war everywhere; we need to learn to see peace. Out of seeing the death of a mother and a brother, and seeing the ruins of 9/11 and women refugees in Africa, Mary Zournazi and Wim Wenders share insights about ways of seeing. The book records the conversations and emails of their exchange as it unfolds, drawing in the thoughts of philosophers and poets and the visions of brother filmmakers Ozu, Kurosawa, Dreyer, Bresson. A very rich and powerful book.”

For more information on this book, click here.

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.

God in the dollar bill

Dollar Bill

Last week, for the first time in my life, I gave a homeless man a dollar and felt no suspicion or uncertainty. After breakfast, one of the regular attendees asked me for money so that he could catch a bus to Pantops in order to arrive at his doctor’s appointment on time. Without a second thought, the dollar was out of my wallet and into his hand. However, this response was much more profound as I reflected upon it.

Before I continue, I believe that I should explain one of the reasons that I chose the Haven as my site for this internship. For three years at UVA, my daily routine would take me past the Corner, through the labyrinth of off-grounds houses and to my own house. Similarly, for three years, I was confronted by numerous people asking for money underneath the train bridge on 14th and on the pathway outside of the CVS. And for three years, my conscience was continually bombarded by the convictions of my religious tradition grappling with my own rational self-interest. How could I in good conscience give money to someone I didn’t know, with no way of knowing how they would spend it? How could I negotiate a religious doctrine that advocates for a reckless defense and aid of the poor with its command to be as “wise as serpents?” Where does “blessed are the poor” meet the wisdom given by God who “gives generously to all without finding fault?” (James 1:5). Within the boundaries of developing a theology of hospitality, one of my goals for the summer was to shed light upon this quandary and apparent paradox.

In the past weeks, I have seen hope manifest itself in the midst of deeply rooted social problems, experienced the depths of loneliness and isolation, had my comfort bubble burst and noticed that God moves in the innocuous and mundane to lead to radical transformation. If only I had noticed all of that during my conversation at the Haven with the man in need of a bus pass.

Reflecting on the encounter after the fact, I found help from Nouwen and Loring in understanding my interactions with this man. Nouwen would have characterized the second movement of the spiritual life in me: the move from hostility to hospitality. In this interpretation, we as humans fail to empathize with those around us and are inherently suspicious. Driven by our loneliness and inability to respond to our inner questions in a satisfactory way, we no longer see the problems and struggles of others as similar to our own. Our deficiencies in our own lives bleed into our interactions with the strangers we meet. “In general we do not expect much from strangers” (Nouwen, 68) and when we do, it’s often expecting the worst from them. Loring can be seen as an alternative to this suspicion. His openness to those who are homeless centers around the idea that we cannot try to impose our own desires and expectations on strangers. We often fall into this trap of “heroism,” a term used by Ekblad, assuming that we know what is best for those on the margins. Loring’s solution is to simply ask that person, “How can I be helpful?” Similarly to Nouwen, Loring’s approach calls us to open ourselves to receiving the homeless person as a guest and fellow human rather than a suspicious criminal attempting to steal what is ours. Our transition from hostility to hospitality is thus fulfilled by denying heroism and merely being available to those around us.

However, none of this theological reflection does any good if it cannot be applied back to the original encounter with the man looking for a bus ticket. Can Nouwen, Loring and Ekblad truly be incorporated into the context of the Haven? As previously stated, this introspective look at the influences playing upon me in that moment helps to explain my actions. In that instant, the man was coming to me as someone in need of money for the bus, answering Loring’s question “How can I be helpful?” Similarly, meeting that need reflected hospitality devoid of suspicion and hostility.   However, the practical application of these two theologies only set the stage for the God who takes the mundane and makes it miraculous. After I responded with hospitality (Nouwen) and met a particular need (Loring), the man began to tell me about where he was going, why he needed the money, and how the doctors he was going to see had helped him in the past. The one dollar became the price for seeing into this man’s soul. As I listened to his passions, fears, hopes, and outlook on the world around him, we began to bond. I believe that God used that dollar to humanize this man beyond my own suspicions. God took the theological work of Loring and Nouwen, blended it with my personal experience and doctrinal truth, and the result was a genuine, intimate moment in a seemingly innocuous conversation.

Our response to folks who are homeless should go much deeper than if we feel bad putting a dollar in a pan-handler’s cup. Rather, it should look at the relationships that can be built with those asking for the dollar. For some, being “helpful” is putting a dollar in their cup even if we are absolutely certain that the dollar is spent on what we deem unacceptable. Wisdom should come in prudently analyzing situations in which new, affirming relationships can be created and maintained. In those moments, instead of letting our suspicions and self-interest run wild, what if we looked for God in the innocuous? In the place of scrutiny, we could cultivate a desire for empathy and support, affirming the humanity of those on the margins and working alongside them to break the chains of addiction, mental illness, hopelessness, and isolation. Instead of analyzing others to determine if they are destitute enough for our help, we could direct our wisdom toward affirming the humanity of someone else who may feel completely cast aside. How different would our interactions with homeless people look if we attempted to see God in the dollar bill and pursued the opportunities that he gives to build relationships and show others that they have worth?

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.

Pizza night

Pizza Night

The girls love pizza night at Bible study. Gifted with a perfectly round ball of freshly made pizza dough set atop a crisp piece of parchment paper, each girl transforms into a master chef for the evening. Each step of the process allows them to make choices about the outcome of their raw materials that stretch their creative and culinary limits. Some girls choose to pound out their dough as thinly as possible, anticipating a thin, crispy crust, while others roll some cheese right into the dough with hopes of a gooey, decadent cheesy crust. They get to then choose how much sauce to smatter on their canvas, and how much cheese to sprinkle on top. The star of the show, of course, is the array of toppings: freshly cut tomatoes and bell peppers, backyard-grown basil, juicy black olives, crumbled sausage, classic pineapple and ham, and the crowd favorite, pepperoni. To many of the girls, the options laid out before them seemed overwhelming, and they chose not to stray too far from the safety of cheese and pepperoni, while others threw on everything but the kitchen sink (or in this case, the black olives–apparently not a topping of choice when you’re 12 and 13 years old). Then we retreated to the living room to hunker down for the long 10-minute wait.

I think we all act a little bit like this when faced with choices: either remain in the safety of what you know and love, or hastily pick whatever seems appealing at the moment, which appears to be working until you end up with a bite of banana pepper and pineapple in your mouth and you instantly regret every impulsive decision that led to this moment. When we make decisions, those as inconsequential as pizza toppings as well as the big ones that can change the whole course of our lives, we face a whole host of competing interests and influences. One of the factors that contributes to the way one individual person processes choices is the environment in which he or she grew up.

By pointing out the importance of context in personal development and decision-making, I realize I run the risk of proposing some sort of deterministic view of the world in which people are strictly bound by their environments. I tend to reject this line of thinking, as it boxes people into pre-determined life trajectories that fail to account for the possibility of personal agency, and most importantly, divine power, to break through barriers, perceived or real. I also don’t think it’s very helpful to completely ignore specific contextual limitations in favor of looking only at individual agency. What I see when I look at these young men and women, not just when they are choosing pizza toppings, but when they are grappling with decisions relating to school, work, family, and personal goals, is a mixture of finitude, fear, and freedom to which I can relate in some ways, and in some ways have no context for understanding.

Take, for instance, one of the recently graduated seniors in our ministry who has dreams of going to college but also has responsibility of her nephew and needs to find a job to help support her and her family. As she works through figuring out what her future holds, she faces both her natural finitude as a human, and the specific limits that her situation places on her. She faces the fear of what any wrong step could mean for her and her family and the fear that she might not be able to achieve her dreams.

If this were the end of the story, many people reading this wouldn’t be surprised, as it fits into the common narrative of “under-privileged” youth who are blocked from success because of their circumstances. Bigger Thomas, the protagonist in Native Son, fulfills this role in a more dramatic manner, showcasing the fatal effects of the toxic environment created in the racially and socioeconomically segregated ghettos of this country. Grow up in the inner city and you’re doomed to stay there, with the only means of escape being prison or death. Or so the narrative goes.

What I’ve seen as one of the foundational pieces of Rebirth’s heart is the desire to flip the script on that story. For the young woman I mentioned, the work of God through Rebirth has introduced another element into her decision-making process: freedom. In a spiritual and ontological sense, she, as a follower of Christ, has gained freedom from the power of sin and death and freedom to follow God wherever he may lead. In another sense, she has gained the freedom, through the support and resources available to her through her community and Rebirth, to pursue the kind of education she wants and to find a job that allows her dignity and financial stability. What my night as a pizza artist taught me was that when we use the Kingdom of God as our context, we are all working with the same raw materials, the same human finitude, and the same fears of the future. What I saw as we all stood around the same table making pizzas and encouraging each other to try the olive or to go for the extra sprinkle of cheese was the beauty and power of community to help push each one of us towards the freedom for which we were all created.

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A tonic for the heart


I stand barefoot in the garden. The late afternoon hours now arrive with a cool, methodical rain. While harvesting a healthy bundle of Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, I take a closer look at the mane of microscopic flowers that nestle themselves around the axis of each opposite-extending leaf pair. The blushing, orchid-shaped flowers are pleasant to the eye and sharp to the touch. I photograph the long-cherished plant while Teresa prepares to discuss the herb in her presentation on Nature As Medicine: Plant-Based Healing for Anxiety and Depression. She tells me that Motherwort is amazing. A member of the mint family, known anti-depressant and, as implied by the species name cardiaca, is “a gentle, strengthening tonic for the heart.”

There is a long history of herbal-based remedies for mental clarity and overall wellbeing. According to Ranchor Prime, “the sages [of Vedic civilization] carefully studied and recorded the herbal and medicinal properties of the forest.” But rather than simply consider the physiological uses of harvested plants, “the forest provided a place of peace and harmony with God where the spiritual goals of life could be pursued by forest sages” (Prime, 23).

Nature as Medicine

With nostalgia, I think back to my own experience of Vedic culture. It was the Fall of 2014 and I myself was a pilgrim of the Vaisnava tradition as I again walked barefoot through the sacred land of Vrindavan, India. We looked for Krishna—a Sanskrit name for God—in the landscape and cherished the forest as His home. It is here that I decided that the forest of Vrindavan is my home, too… even more than the lush forest of the Shenandoah. However, today I see these forests as united, and I remind myself that Vrindavan is always there present when carried in the heart.

The spiritual world is here and the material world is here. The difference is in your consciousness. When you have spiritual consciousness – you are in the spiritual world.
—Sacinandana Swami

My Home Is Deep in the Forest

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Washing dishes and bursting bubbles

Washing Dishes

As my time at the Haven progresses, I find myself becoming accustomed to the daily tasks required to make the day shelter run. Especially in the kitchen, I often feel like there is a certain rhythm that characterizes the hours leading up to and during the preparation and serving of the meal. Akin to the motion of the waves, a circular pattern of preparation and clean-up has emerged that is only strengthened by the ebb and flow of the guests filtering through the breakfast line from 8:00-9:00 AM. This timing is a credit to those who run the kitchen and the countless volunteers who frequently give their time to learn the rhythm of the kitchen, making sure that breakfast runs smoothly. I too have felt swept up by this perpetual, almost musical tide of the Haven’s routine. I know that the coffee mugs must be placed, the fruit salad must be cut, eggs must be fried and served, and all the dishes must be washed and sanitized and that it will all start again tomorrow. This organization is what makes the Haven work. It makes sense in my head. It is, dare I say, comfortable?

The last thing that I would ever want is to detract from the routine. It is both logical and rational and allows the Haven to run efficiently both in terms of providing for immediate needs and balancing its budget. This organization is essential and any shelter could not succeed without this forethought and planning. This order is wonderful and fits seamlessly into my comfort zone and personality. At the same time, that’s the problem. I entered into this internship to step outside of my realm of comfortability because I believe that that is where God is found. If reading Loring, Nouwen, Day, and Ekblad have taught me anything, it is that working with the poor and oppressed is an adventure. It has intense moments of jubilation and theological breakthrough coupled with heartbreak and mourning, but it is only possible if we step out of what we deem is acceptable. We are entering into the lives of those on the margins with humility and respect, weakness and trembling, hoping to glimpse God’s Kingdom in the here and now. We open ourselves to be vulnerable and empathize with those that God created. But how can this be done when the novelty of our circumstances wears off? How can I interact with homeless folks when the routine I have created for myself creates two distinct social spaces; the work of the kitchen where I am secure and the true lives and stories of those being served? I, at times, perform my work, “serve” those who are in need, and then leave with nothing to think or write about. Within my security bubble behind the serving counter, no true theological reflection occurs. My bubble needed to be burst, and Lee helped that to happen.

Lee is one of the homeless men that frequently comes to the shelter for breakfast. He has done so for years and has also become accustomed to the receiving end of the Haven’s routine. The novelty for Lee wore off long ago. Last week, he showed me that the bubble of security that I unconsciously put up would and could not stand. After breakfast, Lee asked to come help me with the dishes. While this was a task that I usually performed alone as another fixed part of my routine, I was eager to have extra help, and we began to clean. Clunky and awkward to start, we soon developed our own rhythm. We were no longer two people on opposite sides of a counter living in different worlds, but rather two people working together. As previously explored by the likes of Peter Maupin, Clarence Jordan, Dorothy Day and countless others, the communal aspects of working for a common goal became evident quickly. Lee and me: talking, washing, and building community through work. It was a small moment, but profound. Maybe that is what hospitality fosters at the Haven. An opportunity for me to enter into a new situation, become lulled into a comfort zone and then humbled. A chance for God to crash into my bubble and dare me to step out to where Lee was–and where God was. Similarly, hospitality at the Haven gave Lee a place where he was treated with dignity and respect so much that he had the confidence to burst my comfort bubble with no fear of judgment. Meeting his immediate needs led to an outpouring of generosity and an opening for God to teach me incredible things through his actions. Perhaps God uses a theology of hospitality to dignify the margins, use the unprivileged to humble and teach the privileged, and to build community and friendship in the place of and across perceived social, racial and economic barriers. Bob Ekblad in his time having Bible studies in prisons said, “In my years visiting people here in the jail I have learned more from inmates than I ever learned in seminary” (Ekblad, 23) and I’m beginning to see where he’s coming from.

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.


Holy Smokes

Nestled into my large leather chair in a smoke-filled room, I let the strands of scripture spin around in my mind. The daily rhythm of my internship takes a slight shift this week and next as I join the interns at my church in a course on ministry to the poor taught by Rebirth’s very own Mo. A man of many talents and a work ethic like no other, Mo not only runs the ministry I get to be a part of this summer, he also owns his own cigar shop-slash-ministry outpost, aptly named Holy Smokes. In many ways, the shop is more filled with the presence of God than many churches I’ve been in in my life. As I sit with the four other students in a circle of large leather recliners usually occupied by middle-aged men smoking cigars, various people walk in and Mo tells them all to pull up a chair and join the study. Inviting people in to be a part of how he’s pursuing the mission of God in the world is what Mo does best.

What Mo also does really well is tie together strands of truths from many different disciplines to form a coherent vision for how and why caring for the poor and hurting matters. In this course, we’ve covered a sociological understanding of the social construction of reality and how that affects any kind of cross cultural interaction; we’ve read Native Son and seen how literature can paint a vivid picture of black life and how the bullets of discrimination, racism, and hatred come flying at black Americans from every direction each and every day; we’ll talk through some of the history of racism by looking at Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail; and where my formal education has been most lacking, we’ve delved into what the Bible has to say about poverty, racism, and where the Church fits into a world bursting at the seams with those two evils.

The structure of this course, just eight three-hour sessions, means that this information is coming at us like less like the cool mist of a sprinkler and more like the blast of a fire hydrant. At this point, I think my mind is still trying to soak in the wisdom from day one, and we’ve already finished day four. In another context, this influx of information would overwhelm me, as the normal pace that UVA has trained me to keep of consuming and digesting course content and then synthesizing and interpreting it to produce something of my own would send me into overdrive. But for Mo, the goal is not perfect retention and hasty production. Just like smoking a cigar (which Mo does just about any time, anywhere), the process should be slow, meditative, and enjoyable. For us, that means asking us to engage in a careful five-step process as we encounter this information: first comes exhortation, which is Mo’s role as the instructor; next, we deliberate, or wrestle, with the difficult topics we’re dealing with; thirdly, we internalize, or let those pieces of wisdom that we, through deliberation with the Holy Spirit, have deemed as truths sink into our hearts and minds; next, we look to see where God wants to specifically activate us within his work in the world; and lastly, we mobilize other people to come alongside and co-labor together.

Throughout the week I found myself mostly in the first three stages, trying to wade through the floodwaters of history, sociology, literature, and theology in my brain, with a few secretive forays into the fourth and fifth stages as my proclivity to plan and to do made it hard to resist peeking into the possibilities of what’s next. My struggle to keep myself from always considering the future is even greater now as I move into my final year of college. In many ways, I have looked at this internship, and the content of this two-week course within it, as resources in my process of discerning what direction I should take in the many upcoming decisions. For the most part, my process has been focused on me: my thoughts, my interpretations, and my future. God didn’t let it stay that way for too long.

The horrifying incidents of this week—the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the attack on police in Dallas—ripped my blinders off and reminded me that what I’m studying in this class, and what I’m doing in my internship, matters. And not just in a few months when I have to choose a thesis topic, and not just in the next year as I’m looking for jobs, but right here, right now. They should not just matter to me because they might pertain to my career path, but because they have to do with real human lives, those who have lost theirs and those that are irrevocably changed because of this week. If I thought I was overwhelmed at the beginning of the week with the high density of information in the class, I was utterly unprepared for how the knowledge of the shootings would hit me. No amount of steps would be able to get me to a place of understanding. No beautifully thought-out process could bring order to the chaos in my mind. As more tragic news kept rolling in like dark, billowing storm clouds, the only word that seemed adequate was maranatha, Aramaic for “Lord Jesus come.” I cannot fix the systematic injustice and the hate and the violence. I cannot stop the fear of “the other” from taking precedence in high-pressure situations and leading to tragic outcomes. I cannot change the fact that I am white and safe, and so many people are black and in danger. I cannot protect the young men and women I drive to and from Bible study every week from the physical and psychological dangers of their world. But I can, and I will, love deeply and pray constantly. I will say until my lungs give out: Maranatha, maranatha, maranatha. If it hasn’t already, I pray this cry will animate every encounter I have in the context of the internship this summer, and that it will work its way into every act of justice or mercy that I am ever able to be a part of. I pray for the passion of this cry to sustain me as I go to Bible studies, plan summer camps, and soak in the truth about God’s heart for the poor and oppressed from my comfy cigar shop chair.

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Welcome to the yurt

The YurtThe yurt is a special place. Despite standing 14 feet high at the tip of the ceiling dome and 7 feet high at the circular walls, the weather-proof canvas structure rests comfortably amidst the lush forest scenery. The perfect balance of ancient wisdom and contemporary design, a wooden platform secures this up-scale version of the traditional Mongolian housing, a design used by nomads for thousands of years. Our lovely little yurt…the perfect home for a backyard apothecary.

Upon stepping foot through the elegant glass door, I am overcome by an aromatic coziness completely illustrative of Teresa’s own welcoming nature. Directly to my left, wooden shelves cradle hundreds of labeled mason jars, filled to varying capacities with an assortment of dried herbs, crushed flowers, and spices. For myself, I brew a blend of dried spearmint and peppermint leaves, bundled in an organic coffee filter. After adding a dollop of local, wildflower honey, I join Teresa upon the couch.

Above me, raindrops tap the clear skylight with the sound of gently popping kernels of corn. We sit next to a flickering fire. As the hearth radiates from below, twinkle lights illumine the perimeter. Our attention finally turns to the MacBooks sitting on our laps and together we update the running list of indigenous herbs that we identified last week’s herbal first aid workshop.

Jars of HerbsEspecially after reading the Green Pilgrimage initiative, I am thinking a lot about how sacred spaces must be navigated in an ecologically conscious way. Green Comfort is an example of how ancient wisdom can be integrated into contemporary design through the use of practical methods of stewardship. From architecture to prayer, indigenous customs can be imbibed within our daily lives in uplifting ways.

It’s been decided. I’m living in a yurt for good.

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.

Creating space

Throughout this week’s reading of Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out, I was exposed to a markedly different style of writing than the memoir-like recounting of Ed Loring and the Open Door Community. Appearing much more pragmatic than Loring, Nouwen systematically spells out his “three movements of the spiritual life” illustrating the balance between “the poles of loneliness and solitude, hostility and hospitality, illusion and prayer” (Nouwen, 19). At the same time, Nouwen remains general enough to allow the reader to introduce their own circumstances, ideas and situations into the framework that he illustrates. Nouwen personifies his belief that “hospitality is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of the chance for the guest to find his own” (Nouwen, 72). Similarly, true hospitality is one in which confrontation occurs as others see “our own life choices, attitudes, and viewpoints…that challenge strangers to become aware of their own position and to explore it critically” (Nouwen, 99). In essence, Reaching Out as a work is attempting to apply the same hospitality in its pages that Nouwen describes. He proposes the framework for how he understands and categorizes the stages of spiritual movement without restricting the reader. This work confronts the reader with a certain viewpoint on Christian spirituality and presses no further only creating space for the reader to think. It only hopes to instigate self-reflection and critical thought giving the reader a chance to formulate their own responses.

Using Nouwen’s definition and presentation of hospitality, it is only appropriate that I examine my current situation with a blending of his thoughts and my own. If that is the purpose of his writing, then this synthesis is the correct response after reading and reflecting upon his interpretation of the world around him. By applying these three movements with my experiences at the Haven and within my own heart and mind, a new and unique amalgamation could emerge.

First, the movement from isolation to solitude. In Reaching Out, “loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today” (Nouwen, 25). Stemming from this acute sense of loneliness is a desire to avoid it and distract ourselves from it. We attempt to rectify this deep loneliness by relationships with other people but soon find that “there is no one who cares and offers love without conditions, and no place where we can be vulnerable without being used” (Nouwen, 26). Searching for an end to this isolation, we attempt to quell our restless hearts in a number of ways. For me, I believe that my time at the Haven could threaten to devolve into something like this: trying to find purpose in helping homeless folks or busying myself to a point where I no longer think of “not belonging” (33) because I preoccupy myself. My need for community and unity becoming intertwined with my actions at this organization. Attempting to block out the nagging, “irking loneliness” (36) and quieting the thoughts in my head with “good deeds.”  Nouwen warns against such motivations claiming that “no friend or lover, no husband or wife, no community or commune will be able to put to rest our deepest cravings for unity and wholeness” (30). If wholeness cannot be found in my work at the Haven, then where is it located?

Second, the movement from hostility to hospitality. The world around us “seems to be increasingly full of fearful, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion” (66). When loneliness and strife prevail, “our own need to still our inner cravings of loneliness makes us cling to others instead of creating space for them” (101). Spurred on by our excessive loneliness and inability to find solitude in open-ended questions, we suffocate others in an attempt to reduce our thoughts. Our relationships become nothing more than one-sided interactions in which we use one another, wringing out every last drop of comfort for our own gain. I also see potential for this in my time with the Haven: a time when my motivations for volunteering could be solely based on feeling better about myself. In the same way, working with the homeless pats my own ego and stops me from interacting in compassion, love and empathy. If hospitality cannot be achieved because of loneliness, then where is there hope?

Third, the movement from illusion to prayer. For Nouwen, this is the movement by which all the others fall into place. The truth is that “we need the willingness and courage to reach out beyond the limitations of our fragile and finite existence toward our loving God in whom all life is anchored” (113). It requires a faith and strength that can only be found in prayer which “is God’s breathing in us, by which we become part of the intimacy of God’s inner life, and by which we are born anew” (125). It is in this reality that we can know that God is “beyond our heart and mind” (126) while at the same time being as close to us as possible. In our striving for fulfillment, we use our preoccupations to stymie our lonely thoughts when the only true source of solitude is found in the mystery of an incomprehensibly big God. Divine intimacy and purpose is only grounded in shedding the “illusion that we know what life is all about, that we rule it and determine its values” (131). Control is placed in the hands of God, and it is only in this moment that my heart can be satisfied, isolation can be invaded by solitude, and hostility is trumped by compassion and hospitality. If my time at the Haven stems from this transition from illusion to prayer, then it will not be about boosting my ego or suppressing my longing, but rather an honest desire to create space for others.

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.