Writing group at the Haven

One of the parts of my summer that I’ve been most excited about was the opportunity to help start a weekly writing group at The Haven. The group is led by local writers, who facilitate workshops in creative writing, poetry, and even graphic novel writing. So far, our writing group has been part reading group, part therapy group, and part writing group—and on different days, different amounts of each of those. Some guests show up merely because they are bored, others, because they have a lot of ideas and creativity, and want to learn how to better express themselves, or even improve grammar and technical skills.

Last week, we read an essay by Annie Dillard entitled “Living Like Weasels.” The essay details an encounter between the speaker and a weasel: an unexpectedly fierce, startling and intimate moment where the two lock eyes, and the world freezes for a moment. The speaker muses and admires the necessity-driven, unrelinquishing lifestyle of the rodent. Everyone loved the essay, and was riveted by Dillard’s prose.

It was the first writing group that I had led, and I felt nervous and tentative as we started. Previously, the facilitators were published authors, and I’m just an English major whose favorite search engine is Wikipedia and whose emails begging for paper extensions are more eloquent than my papers themselves. So I started the group with the disclaimer that “We’re all equals today!” and began reading the essay out loud.

The essay is divided into six short sections, and there was a very brief pause as I took a break, expecting to begin reading the second section aloud. But one of the other participants dove in, unprompted, and began reading aloud. Her raspy, rich voice molded the words in a way that made my rendering of the essay plain and much too formal. She skipped over a whole line without noticing; stumbled over ‘suburbia’, substituted “inexplicably” for “unexplainably” without missing a beat—understandable, easy mistakes.

Seamlessly, we each took turns reading the essay. Intermittently, we paused to discuss and reflect on what we read. Sometimes the conversation stayed close to the text, most times it lost connection to the text rapidly and extensively. Dillard uses vivid and evocative language to describe the weasel encounter in her essay, and we spent at least ten minutes coming to a group consensus that weasels had, without warning, taken the top spot in each of our personal phobia lists. The conversation devolved into stories that ranged from attending college in Colorado to sleeping on the streets in Denver; we learned about each other’s therapists and children. We moralized about good southern manners and generosity and compassion. We spoke with passion, energy, excitement, confusion, and curiosity. Our conversation was at times serious and at other times humorous, as we shared our perspectives and impressions of the piece.

Our writing group was particularly diverse that day, and initially, I felt our differences poignantly. As we began to talk about and interpret the essay, I felt disarmed by some of the group member’s reactions. The conversation was so different than the ones I participate in my UVA courses! Yet as the conversation continued, barriers began to dissolve and we wrestled with the text together, each providing our own colorful interpretation and imagination of the essay’s imagery. Three of us had attended some level of high school, three were college educated. Four had experienced homelessness, two had not. Two were black, four were white. Four women, two men, two mothers, two teachers, three former addicts, one politician, one smoker.

One woman, Annie, spoke candidly about her life experiences, citing her lack of education as a regret, yet her grandchildren as her greatest joys. She talked about relating to the weasel, such times when she felt genuinely fearful of others she encountered on the streets, threatened by them—until she connected with them on a personal level and learned their stories. She spoke about how her own experiences of need and poverty shaped a personal philosophy surrounding generosity and charity. “Its important to meet people where they’re at—wherever that is. I’m fine with giving people a dollar for a beer, because maybe that’s what they need right now, maybe that’s where they’re at, and maybe that’s all life has to offer them at this second. It doesn’t mean I don’t hope and pray for a different future, a different future need for them, that one day they’ll use that dollar for something else. But you can’t expect more of people than what life’s given them.”

Before we knew it, nearly two hours had passed. Members of our group had other commitments to get to: meeting with addiction counselors and old friends, work and volunteering schedules. Two hours had passed, and none of us had written a word during the workshop. I quickly assigned a “challenge-by-choice” option that they could write on their own time if they chose, and we parted ways. The next day, Annie said she couldn’t get the assignment off her brain all day. She loved the group, and enjoyed creatively thinking about the writing prompt. Another participant came up to me, thrusting a piece of paper with scrawling writing towards me. She had worked on the “homework” the night before and wanted to share and discuss what she wrote. Her sentences were short, brusque, simple. Reading her thoughts, communicated on paper, was a privilege.

I think it is fair to say that there is room to be celebratory as well as critical about our weekly writing workshops. I try my best to be realistic about the extent of the writing group’s impact and ability to truly “make a difference.” I don’t hold overly romantic views that we will begin churning out poets and novelists, radically transforming the modern canon of literature. But these homespun philosophies, formed over lukewarm coffee on a wobbly plastic table, are as valuable as any intellectual productivity within a UVA classroom. Our group is small, but the guests value and enjoy the time as their own opportunity to explore fun ideas critically and creatively—whether in writing or just in discussion. And for now, I think that’s enough. Coffee cups

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.

Brachot – Blessings Part 1: Language

Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam…

Blessed art thou Lord our God King of the Universe…

Brucha at Ya Shechinah eloheinu Ruach ha’olam…

Blessed is our God (feminine) which is One, Spirit of the Universe…

Tanakh ScrollsEarly on in the Fellowship (and—hard to believe—exactly a month ago to the day that I am writing this), Adam, the executive director at Urban Adamah, led a class for us about brachot, “blessings” in the Jewish context. The class was comprised of several components starting with a mini-lecture by Adam in which he laid out the basis for why we say brachot and various perspectives on the role of the practice within Judaism. We also investigated some of the language around prayer and blessings employed in Judaism and discussed our own responses and personal relationships to that language. Much of my focus at the time was on the aspects of prayer and the Hebrew employed therein that I find personally alienating, including in particular some of the gendered, hierarchical, and anthropomorphizing language used in reference to God in traditional Jewish prayer formations. A good example of this is in the common Baruch ata Adonai formation utilized in many standard Jewish blessings:

Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam…

Blessed art thou Lord our God King of the Universe…

While comforting in its familiarity and grounding in its ancient resonance, this particular statement is alienating to me for a number of reasons. First among these are the gendered associations I hold with the words “Lord” and “King” which, in this context, cast the image of a male, patriarchal God. As a feminist who holds the dismantling of patriarchal systems and institutions as critical towards my own liberation, I am personally uncomfortable with such images of God. Second, as someone who does not believe in or feel capable of relating to the idea of a personal God (that is, the idea of a deity that is itself a humanlike being rather than an impersonal “force”), this idea of God-as-Lord/God-as-King (and therefore a male person) feels incoherent. Third, the God-as-Lord/God-as-King formation explicitly presents God as occupying a position above humankind in a hierarchical relationship. As I discussed in my last post, I believe there is a certain level of reciprocity in the relationship between God and humanity as represented by the Covenant; while God to a significant extent exists outside of the plain of human power, understanding, and control, the expression of “God” as a concept is dependent entirely on humanity, and I believe it is useful—and powerful in our contemporary cultural and intellectual moment—to reconstitute the relationship between God and humanity not as hierarchical but rather as being represented by a set of concentric rings. In such a model, God does not occupy a space above humankind, but instead is represented by a circle around and outside of humanity, which is itself represented by another circle formed within the larger God-ring. In this way, the concentric rings of God and humanity share a center (human consciousness), humanity is acknowledged and represented as a part of God, and the existence of God as something that surpasses human boundaries is acknowledged. God and humanity are One at the same time that they are distinct. Neither relates to the other by way of domination (can a non-Being dominate a Being?) but, rather, both relate to each other through mutual connection, by sharing a central point and containing each other in their fundamental Nature.

All of that is difficult to express by way of saying “Blessed art thou Lord our God King of the Universe.” In fact, most of the above is contradicted by that statement, which is itself such an integral part of the religious/spiritual practice of so many Jews. At the same time, however, one of Judaism’s most enduring qualities is, perhaps surprisingly, its mutability. The history of Jewish tradition is one of change and adaptation. The basis of many core Jewish texts—particularly the Mishna and the Talmud—is the interrogation and reinterpretation of scripture. While dogmatic in many of its forms, the sacred within Judaism is not hard stone. Like humanity itself, the sacred within Judaism is made of clay and therefore can be molded. Even our ancient prayers can be rewritten. Within feminist Judaism a vast amount of energy has been put into this work.

In our class, together with Adam, we considered a rewritten version of the Baruch ata Adonai prayer structure:

Brucha at Ya Shechinah eloheinu Ruach ha’olam…

Blessed is our God (feminine) which is One, Spirit of the Universe…

Hebrew is a gendered language. God in Judaism has many names that reflect Their various aspects. The word Shechinah is a feminine name for God, a title which acknowledges God’s oft-overlooked feminine aspect. The rest of the language of this version of the prayer has been adapted to agree grammatically with Shechinah as a feminine noun (Brucha, for example, is the feminine version of Baruch). Eloheinu is the word that translates to mean “our God.” Ya is a shortened version of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH)—another, traditionally unpronounced, name for God—and is often interpreted as referring to the quality of Oneness. Ruach is the word that means “spirit.” It is often used in contemporary practice to replace terms such as melech (“king”) as a less anthropomorphic and hierarchically-based term. Ha’olam simply (if such a thing can ever be said about Hebrew words and their meanings) means “of the universe.” This version of the blessing lends itself more easily to open interpretation, presenting a more fluid and flexible conceptualization of God and Their relationship to humanity and the universe. Personally, I have found it helpful to embrace such linguistic playfulness within Hebrew, or at least to consider it. By reworking the language we use to address spiritual concepts, we can create open spaces for those who might otherwise feel excluded from traditional religious institutions and the language that has been used to codify their mores and power. By reexamining the language of prayer, we begin to reexamine what it means to pray, and thus generate pragmatic, enduring and utilitarian rituals for the contemporary moment.

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.

Slowing down to play

I sat in the first row of one of Magdalene’s twelve passenger vans as the residents piled in. Leanna–one of the drivers– and Marlena–the other intern–were in the front seat, and we were picking the Magdalene residents up from a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. We were heading to Centennial Park where Marlena and I would be leading our weekly group. Many of the women were not excited to spend an hour outside in the Nashville summer heat. Marlena and I had decided to center our group meetings around spiritual disciplines, and this week, as we explained to the women once we arrived at the park and gathered in a shady spot, we would be practicing Slowing. Slowing, according to the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook we’ve been using as a resource, “is one way to overcome inner hurriedness and addiction to busyness. Through slowing, the sacrament of the present moment is tasted to the full” (Calhoun, 88). To practice this, we asked the women to take a few minutes to walk slowly around the park collecting twigs or leaves that we would be using to decorate picture frames. As I distributed supplies and helped the women–who, now that we were sitting under a shady tree in a bright flower garden, remarked that the weather really wasn’t so bad–lay out their gathered materials, I reflected on these projects, these works of art we were creating together. According to John W. de Gruchy, art “is related to friendship, education or formation, play, and happiness” and I felt each of those relations deeply as we sat and laughed and created together (Christianity, Art, and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Justice, 148).

In de Gruchy’s understanding of theological aesthetics, the ability to create beautiful things is a divine gift. He writes, “Genuine artistic creation is then understood as a gift, a Spirit-inspired construction which breaks open that which is hidden” (120). The task of artists and creators is to respond “to that which is given and discerned in creation and redemption.” In this way, the artist’s and the theologian’s goals are on the same plane: to respond to what is given to them by God. Creation and creativity are gifts. In this particular project in the park, we responded to creation by taking pieces of it to make something beautiful that we would use to frame images that are significant to us. The particularity of the final product we created together points to a theologically aesthetic response to creation. De Gruchy emphasizes the importance of responding to creation and God’s redemptive power within and through our own particular contexts. He writes, “There is, in fact, no other way whereby we can truly know something of the mystery of God incarnate than in terms of images that relate to our present reality and experience” (121). The picture frames we created were a profound example of a product made with materials collected in a particular time and location. These creations would then be used to house and to highlight precious images from our particular experiences.

Picture frame made of twigsThis group session in the park presented an opportunity to have fun together in community as we worked on our individual frames. A key component of this creative task was play. According to Bonhoeffer, play “goes beyond the categories of doing, having, and achieving and leads us into the categories of being, of authentic human existence and demonstrative rejoicing in it. It emphasizes the creative against the productive and the aesthetic against the ethical” (de Gruchy, 157). Though this project was centered around the practice of a spiritual discipline, what we were asking the women to do in the park that day was to play. We had an hour to be away from the Magdalene houses and offices, work, therapy, and other responsibilities. As Bonhoeffer understood, play is a necessary experience for flourishing. As the women work and learn to gain independence and full autonomy upon graduation from the program, these moments that “break open fresh possibilities” are a necessary part of healing. Just as Slowing counters mental hurriedness, play counters the constant emotional work that comes with the healing process. It cuts through the inevitable tension in a community of trauma survivors. Play has true, relentless, strong, salvific, redemptive power.

Beyond the depth of the creating we were doing together and within the grumbling complaints about the heat and sharing of supplies was an undeniable presence of friendship. Bonhoeffer underscores friendship’s differentiation from other relationships with legal or contractual components. It is “unlike marriage in that it has no recognized rights but must depend on its inherent quality. In distinction from marriage, work, state, and the church, each of which has its own divine mandate, friendship belongs to ‘the broad area of freedom’” (147). The residents of Magdalene routinely refer to themselves and graduates of the program as their sisters as a way of fostering connection and reminding themselves of the women who came before them. But fully investing in bonds of sisterly friendship while also focusing on individual recovery must be a freely taken choice. Bonhoeffer also suggests that the church ought to be an arena to foster friendships that are beautiful and “a key element in ‘aesthetic existence’” in addition to formal, legal relationships. The church, he argued, could be the point of intersection for art, education, friendship, and joy. In my time at Magdalene House­–particularly on that day in the park–I feel situated at a similar intersection as we learn, laugh, create, and play.

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.

Picking favorites

Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved picking favorites.

My favorite lollipop flavor is mango. My favorite place is the mountains. My favorite color is yellow. My favorite Taylor Swift album is Red.

I’m finding that this trait about me is not going to bode well if I chose to go into a career of social services. You don’t get to pick favorites and dole out Big Brother’s funds according to who has the best smile or the saddest story.

I’ve indulged some of my favoritism at the Haven this summer. In the kitchen, we are only supposed to give out one scoop of sugar per cup of coffee, but there’s one guest who I always give two—he doesn’t even have to ask anymore. A few weeks ago, a woman came to the kitchen and the only thing she wanted for breakfast was fruit, because it was healthy. I gave her a heaping bowl of our beautiful fruit salad—more than I was supposed to. Maybe she would become my new favorite.

Yesterday, she flicked me off. We’ve never exchanged a word after the fruit salad incident. But I was just sitting in a chair by the exit, and she walked past, and she looked into my eyes and stuck her middle finger in my face.

Honestly, she still has a chance of turning out to be a favorite. I sort of like the sass.

But in all seriousness, it is interesting and sometimes disturbing to me how easily our emotions impact the way we might fight for justice or equality for others. Sometimes, I fear that my internship this summer is actually making me a less compassionate and empathetic person. When you’ve dried the tears of a victim of domestic abuse who is scared for the future of her children, it can be hard to muster sympathy for anything less extreme. I often find myself emotionally exhausted and resort to hoarding my love and compassion for only those who’ve earned a spot on my favorite list.

Fruit salad

In her book, God Knows There’s Need: Christian Responses to Poverty, Susan Holman explores popular church teachings surrounding the poor during the first eight centuries of the Christian tradition. Just like today, priests had differing viewpoints and instructed their congregants differently about how to properly provide alms to the needy. However, Holman found, as she translated these ancient sermons, that more often than not, churches from this time period adopted a “broadly inclusive” view towards charity and almsgiving. One church leader, Basil of Caesarea, “urges his congregation to…imitate God’s generosity, since God without distinction gives rain and food to all on the earth, just and unjust. By this divine imitation, Basil suggests, differences between rich and poor could be leveled…By sharing equally, the hungry will have what they need, the rich will deflate into healthy and spiritual sanity, and the city will enjoy peace and good political order” (Holman 60). This theology links humanity to divinity in the way both our beings and actions belong to the divine: the mere act of God’s creation requires that we regard and interact with it in light of God’s ownership and authority over all creation. The ramifications of Basil’s theology on my personal life is that he just effectively destroyed all permission for me to use favoritism amongst the Haven’s guests. Shoot.

Another priest named John Chrysostom wrote this around 400 AD: “If you see any one in affliction, do not be curious to enquire further. His being in affliction gives him a just claim to your help. For if when you see a donkey choking you lift him up without inquiring whose he is, you certainly ought not to be over-curious about a person. He is God’s, whether he is a heathen or a Jew; since even if he is an unbeliever, he needs help.” (57). He elaborates, explaining that we should not place ourselves in the roles of a jury, trying to determine whether someone’s need is real or fake, or less or more than someone else’s. The mere fact that someone asks for help is cause to give them whatever they ask for.

I read this at my house one evening and become totally enamored. I romanticize this type of radical charity, excited by the way it equalizes and restores humanity to everyone, no matter what their story is. But then I go to The Haven in the morning and experience sexist remarks from some of the older male guests. They are not seriously concerning or threatening, but the gendered remarks rile up the feisty feminist in me. I decide that Laura deserves extra warmth and hospitality, where Rob deserves a curt nod at best. Aaron deserves a large bar of soap, whereas Sherika deserves the leftovers of my charity. Based on whether a guest’s personality, smile or demeanor strike my fancy, I decide they are more or less worthy of my help or kindness. I wish I was like Jesus, who healed the sinners and saints alike, whenever they asked. Instead, I’m the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld doling out sugar scoops, only deeming certain individuals worthy of my kindness.

This is where the priests’ linking of divinity and humanity is effective. Ultimately, everything on this world is finite. There is never enough funding for housing; there are not enough beds in homeless shelters. At the Haven, there is a limit to how much food our fridge can contain, and my capacity for compassion for the hungry will lamentably always be finite. But this idea of imitating the divine provides access to the infinite, incomprehensible and all-encompassing magnitude of God. Through attempting to serve, love, and enact mercy like Jesus, Christians remember, realize, and embody the Christian doctrine of incarnation. With this teaching, we consider that the divine encourages creation to adopt holiness, embodying divine righteousness and justice in a way that evokes awe and reverence that reflects back towards the Holy. Volunteer and guest alike participate in enacting this doctrine: each are recipients as well as administrators of the incarnation.

Holman explains “affirming the Christian doctrine of the incarnation requires more than an intellectual exercise within our usual comfortable physical routines” (162). Our resources are limited; even our intellectual resources are unequipped to fully comprehend the magnitude of God. Holman suggests that liturgy, or ritualized practices of service and worship, are our best tools for imitating the grand mercy of God. Holman quotes a Catholic woman religious named Mother Skobtsova (certainly no stranger to ritual) as she says, “It seems to me that this mysticism of human communion is the only authentic basis for any external Christian activity” (163). It requires comprehension and ritualization of both the mystery and the miracle of human and divine connection in order to even attempt to solve the problems of our world with our finite resources. It means acknowledging the limits of our own flesh, yet also inviting the unlimited power of the divine into the embodied suffering of the poor in our society—and into our own bodies, to be vessels of God’s infinitude.

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.