Theater as a Resource for Ministry

More and more, I have been turning to theater to resource my ministry.

Before being cancelled by COVID-19, I had planned on students acting out a scene from “The Revolutionists” in our college’s Baccalaureate Service as a way to set up my sermon entitled, “No Time for Fiction or Fear”, playing off the last line of the scene, “Maybe real revolution doesn’t have time for either fiction or fear?” I have a feeling this play and this sermon will still be appropriate next May.

At the prison where I volunteer, we have used the play “Twelve Angry Men” to open up discussions on communication skills, emotional intelligence and the state of our criminal justice system.

In the book I am writing for Fortress Press on the risks privileged people should take, I will be citing Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” as a resource churches can use to practice activism.

So when I heard that my friend and writing coach, Allison K. Williams, had published a play for high schoolers entitled, “The Next Horseman: A comedy play script for video chat”, I had to buy a copy. I’ve always admired Allison’s knack for humor writing, and The Next Horseman did not disappoint. The concept for the story is hilarious in itself. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are ready to fire Pestilence. His evaluation shows he’s not taken out enough people and the other horsemen are ready to move on. Lots of other frightening candidates line up, eager to interview for the job—Extortion, Internet Trolling, Human Trafficking, Bigotry, Inequality, Mosquitos, Mansplaining and Climate Change.

Reading through this play, it’s obvious young people would love it. There’s lots of gross humor that they would have fun acting out. Famine is always snacking on something disgusting and even licks food straight off her desk. Pestilence sneezes into his open hand, examines the output, then wipes his hand on his own shoulder. Ewww!!! Reading through the play during youth group or Sunday School would be a hit and would be a great kick off to a study of Revelation.

There were a few moments in the play where the dark humor crossed a line into too dark for me. I’d edit out or soften the lines about Human Trafficking if I were using this play with youth. So be sure to read through the whole play before acting it out.

On the other hand, I see the play successfully introducing other dark topics that would open up further, positive conversation. For instance, this dialogue between Death (the leader of the horsemen) and Inequality (interviewing for the job):

Inequality is called in for the interview.
Inequality: Yes? I’m going to need a company laptop, a wardrobe allowance, and my own assistant.
Death: I’m afraid we don’t usually—
Inequality: And a salary 50% higher than anyone else in the same job.
Death: But you have identical qualifications.
Inequality: Well, if everyone else had the same thing, it wouldn’t be inequality anymore.
Famine (sets whipped-cream pie on desk): Sounds reasonable. Nothing better than the whole pie! (Begins eating pie face-first)
Pestilence: That’s all you’ve got? Inequality is so obvious! All you do is make unfair things sound reasonable. Any idiot can defeat Inequality if they put some effort into it. It’s just reverse envy.
Inequality: Like reverse racism?
Pestilence: That’s not a thing!
Inequality: Whoa, calm down there, nobody’s going to listen if you’re yelling.

Unpack just this one scene with youth and you’ve got hours of conversation about salary inequities, greed, racism, reverse racism, and tone-policing. Because it reads fast, is fun and can even be done via Zoom, I’d even use this play with my college students. A great resource!

Why is dystopian fiction a comfort right now?

I just finished reading Ling Ma’s novel Severance published in 2018. It blew my mind. Here’s a quick synopsis: Shen Fever, a virus originating in China, has spread globally and shut down the world. A small group of survivors find each other, including the main character Candace Chen. They hole up in an abandoned mall as their new home. Of course, the leader of this small band of survivors, Bob, is religious and controlling. (Why do cults always arise in dystopian novels? Station Eleven also had a cult plot woven into it.) So Candace eventually needs to escape.

Any of this sound familiar?

This was one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. Ling Ma’s prose is sparse and satirical. She is successfully humorous while also providing social commentary on life in New York City, office politics, capitalism, youthful idealism, and immigrant life in America. This book spoke so eerily well into today’s world and today’s global pandemic that it was impossible to put down. The only thing missing was the racial repercussions I assumed Candace Chen would experience as a Chinese American with the virus originating in China. That plot line never arose.

Finishing Severance led me searching for a review I remembered Amy Frykholm wrote for the Christian Century. Here’s an excerpt of what she had to say about the dystopian novel The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson.

The delight I experienced in reading this book needs further interrogation, however, because these stories deal relentlessly with dark subjects: debilitating disease, child abandonment, child pornography, and the legacy of the cold war.

But gradually it dawned on me that the picture of human nature Johnson paints is weirdly optimistic. In these stories the human heart often acts against the narrator’s wishes, leading a contorted person on a straighter path than he or she could have created—a version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

It’s not that there are happy endings. But even amidst death and torture one can say, tentatively, if one has been able to stay with the dark scenario, that love wins out.

I think the reason dystopian fiction can comfort us in dark times is that these stories often call us back, as readers, to what is most precious about life. When everything is gone, to what do you cling? In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it was the relationship between a father and his son. In Severance, it is also a moral claim for love and relationships in spite of all the odds.

Maybe reading Severance made me feel better because I could simply say to myself, “Well, at least things aren’t THAT bad yet.”  But like Frykholm wisely noted in her book review, there’s more. In the midst of global pandemics, shit gets real and we are called to an optimistic hope that, in the end, love still remains.

The Overstory: A Brief Book Review

I just finished reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. Let me tell you about it. Let me tell you how it helped.

I’d been reading a lot of non-fiction for a larger writing project; bell hooks on teaching and community building; Gloria Ansaldúa’s Borderlands; Martin Luther King’s Where Do We Go from Here?; Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. You get the drift. I was plowing through books—great books—learning and growing.

But when COVID-19 arrived on the scene, sending my college students home and shutting down my state, I got distracted. I couldn’t focus. All I could do watch the news and worry—about my family, about our college, about the men I have come to know at our local prison.  I tried to keep reading, but I couldn’t keep my mind on the page. I decided I needed to lose myself in fiction.

The Overstory is a big book—500 pages big. And sometimes I struggle to make it through big books. But this one captured me right away. While perusing many great options, I decided to read this book because it had won a Pulitzer and because I it was about trees. I love trees.

The story follows a handful of people whose lives intersect as each gets involved in saving trees (and the planet) from destructive human greed and overconsumption. The way Richard Powers introduces each character and then follows them through their story reminded me of the structure of one of my all-time favorite books, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. The trees themselves are characters in The Overstory; planted on a newly settled farm in Iowa, a chestnut tree’s growth is recorded with a monthly photograph by generations of family farmers; Mimas, a giant redwood, serves as a host to activists who climb and take shifts living in its branches for months to save it from loggers. The trees, we learn in The Overstory, communicate with each other and with us. They care for and protect and continue in the face of threats. But humans are the trees greatest threat—and, as the story goes, the greatest threat to ourselves as well.

Reading this book in the midst of a global pandemic turned me towards the world, especially the natural world, with fresh eyes. When toilet paper and Clorox bleach and my kids favorite fizzy juice drinks can’t be found in the stores, I’m learning to make do with less and appreciating what I have more. I’ve been taking long walks and spending time in my own backyard. Our trees are beautiful. I’m learning their names: birch, pear, silver maple. I’m regaining my focus—not so much on what threatens us, but on what can save us. The answers to our problems are all around us. I hear them especially at night when I walk outside and listen to the prairie wind stir the crowns of the trees.

 

 

 

Traveling

” A thing can travel everywhere, just by holding still.”

These are the words of a tree in Richard Powers’ beautiful novel, The Overstory.  The story reveals how trees communicate with us and create community, supporting each other wherever they are planted. It’s a story that is giving me hope in these days of COVID-19 social isolation.

It gives me hope as I worry about the incarcerated men who have participated in our book clubs. I imagine them in their cells, living for a month now in lockdown, traveling in the freedom of their minds wherever their imagination can take them. I pray their imagination takes them to beautiful green spaces, full of trees that call them by name and seek to commune with them and support them.

It gives me hope as I reflect on the ways I am currently seeking and valuing community now more than ever. I could do without the grief and anxiety of a global pandemic, but I am grateful for the lessons I am learning: lessons about how to better conserve food and household resources, lessons about what work matters most and what can be let go, lessons about our interdependence as humanity, lessons about how our care for creatures and creation profoundly affects our human lives.

We are all holding physically still in this moment. And yet we can travel everywhere in hope and prayer and imagination. I pray for us to imagine beauty and supportive community. I pray we live into what we imagine for the sake of God’s creation.

[Photo Credit: Gordon Wrigley]

Called to Joy: A Christmas Sermon


Based on Luke 2: 1-14


I might complain (just a little bit) to my pastor friends who serve churches that Christmas, at Monmouth College, comes on December 7th—which means I have to start listening to Christmas music mid-November to prepare myself and my message. There is no Advent in academia, no expectant season of waiting and spiritual preparation.

This year, though, I’m not complaining. Christmas couldn’t come soon enough.

In my message last year, I prayed to God to save us from the darkness which I described as a nation entrenched in deep, unyielding differences; children separated from their parents at the border; hateful, destructive rhetoric; endless mass shootings; wildfires raging; our environment degrading. Obviously, I’m still praying that prayer.

This year, though, the angels have turned me to joy.

In Luke chapter 2, when the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth as “good news of great joy for all the people”, they do not do so in a time when joy is easy to be found, or to a people whose lives naturally spark joy. The shepherds, whom the angels address, are the poor day laborers, the Unseen, the field workers like those bringing in the harvest here in rural Illinois no matter the weather. As I drive by these field workers in rain, sleet and Halloween snowstorms, with my car heater blaring I think, my blood is not thick enough for that kind of cold; my character’s not strong enough for that kind of work. These workers, I imagine, do not rejoice in the labor, as much as what the labor provides—food, shelter, a livelihood for the family they love.

It is to these—these head-down, hard-working, don’t-stop-to-think-about-your-life-or-your-life-will-overwhelm-you— that the angels call to joy—great joy, in fact; life changing, necessary joy.

The poet Christian Wiman writes that “joy is the only inoculation against the despair to which any sane person is prone, the only antidote to the nihilism that wafts through our intellectual atmosphere like sarin gas.”[1]

I often counsel people who are going through difficult times to intentionally seek joy as they observe the day’s sunset, or listen to their children’s laughter, or receive their spouse’s embrace, or witness a stranger’s random act of kindness.  Seek joy, I advise them, not to demean or downplay their darkness but to help them find their way through it. Joy can serve as a buoy when life’s storms overwhelm; moments of joy are stepping-stones through the darkness and despair.

Perhaps you have come here tonight, to Christmas at Monmouth, seeking such an inoculation of joy—a decision the angels would approve of. Because here among the music, and the beauty, and the love and pride we feel for our students who have worked so hard to pull all this off, the world’s problems do not feel so heavy, or so insurmountable.

We need this. We need the good news of a baby born to turn an oppressive human empire on its head; we need the good news that there is a power greater than human greed and immorality; we need the good news that the arc of the universe bends towards justice; we need to hear Luke’s angels proclaim that this Christmas there is good news of great joy for all the people.

We need this joy not only as an inoculation against the darkness and despair but also as a way to resist it.

The poet Jack Gilbert writes:

“We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.”

Joy resists injustice; joy resists despair and hopelessness; joy resists evil by refusing to acquiesce or accept that darkness is the more powerful reality. The angels call a poor, oppressed people to joy so that they can resist the ruthlessness of their world.

Recently, I was introduced to the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam felt a moral responsibility to write poetry for his people during the Russian Revolution of the 1900’s. When the government demanded poets write patriotic poems to inspire obedience among the working class, Mandelstam resisted. He resisted by writing poetry that evoked a violent, upending kind of joy; the kind of joy that can save you when life is insufferable. Mandelstam also wrote a poem mocking Stalin, which got him arrested, exiled and eventually killed.

In this Russian context, Mandelstam’s poems weren’t written down—they were too momentous, too truthful. He composed in his head while walking the streets of St. Petersburg, reciting his memorized poems to his wife, who memorized them herself and only decades later, after Mandelstam’s death, wrote them down.

Even after he was arrested and exiled to a Russian corrective-labor camp, Mandelstam continued to compose poetry. His health declined. He was starving. The last time he was seen alive he was scavenging for food out of a garbage dump. Mandelstam knew full well that he was about to die. Yet, still he resisted the darkness. The last poem he wrote before his death was this, called “And I Was Alive.”[2]

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering
power,
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

Embrace the joy the angels proclaim. Rejoice in the hope God provides.

 

 

 

[1] Joy: 100 Poems, edited by Christian Wiman, Yale University Press, 2017

[2] Read more about Osip Mandelstam in Ilya Kaminsky’s introduction to “Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam” and Christian Wiman’s interview here: https://onbeing.org/poetry/and-i-was-alive/

[Feature Image: Drew Selby]

A Case for Generosity in a Selfish Time

This August I spent four days in Nashville, Tennessee taking a class through the Lilly School of Philanthropy where I was introduced to a new study out of Notre Dame called the Science of Generosity Initiative and the book written from the research called “The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose.” The data from this national study, led by social scientists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, reveals that the more generous Americans are, the more happiness, health, and purpose in life they enjoy.

Many Americans enjoy living very generous lives. But, according to the data, even more do not.

So why are Americans so selfish? One reason offered by the Science of Generosity Initiative is the fear of scarcity—a fear on the rise in America today.  We are worried about our personal resources, our national resources, our global resources. The fear of running out of money, basic necessities, and basic comforts leads us to a mentality best described by my friend Paul from Tennessee, “You need to get all you can. Can all you get. And guard that can.”

Certainly, there are people for whom scarcity of resources is a real problem. But for others of us, we would be well served to ask, Do we have a scarcity problem, or do we have a distribution problem?

We recently led a program for our college students on Adulting 101.  During the program we encouraged students to create a personal budget for themselves. How much money do you take in in income? How much are your expenses? Then—the all-important question—what is a want and what is a need? Do you need all those mocha frappe’s at Starbucks? Or do you need books for your classes?

Actually, a little bit of financial planning can go a long way when it comes to living a generous life. I will confess that money and economics are not my favorite topics. When my husband, Dan, and I meet with our financial advisor, I fight to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head from boredom. But after reading Smith and Davidson’s book, I realized that my loosey-goosey, unstructured way of giving (put a little in the plate here, contribute to that charity there) made very little impact on both me personally and the social causes I seek to support.  So I forced myself to sit down with Dan; we calculated our income, our expenses, tracked what we currently give to church and charities, discussed where we wanted to be on the scale of our giving (between 4% – 10% of our income) and made some decisions that felt faithful to both of us. Will we have to cut back on some of our favorite indulgences? Yes. (Mainly, I’m told, I’ll have to buy fewer clothes.) But we will benefit more from this planned giving and our causes will benefit more from our structured, monthly contributions.

The fear of scarcity is on the rise, but I imagine most of us could sit down, do a little financial planning and discover we have more to contribute than we realize.

Another reason Americans are less than generous, according to the Science of Generosity study, is a cultural value of autonomy, individualism, and exceptionalism. To put it more crudely; if it doesn’t directly affect me or my family or my people, it’s not my problem.

Greta Thunburg, the young environmental activist from Sweden, has her work cut out for her when she encounters such ungenerous people. When asked about the problem of global warming and climate change, Doug (who was surveyed for the Generosity Study) responded by saying this:

“I don’t pay attention a lot to that. But in the big picture of, “is the ice all gonna’ melt in Antarctica?” Yeah sure it probably is. Am I going to be here? Probably not. Are my kids gonna’ be here? Probably not.”

I feel like I could end this blog post here by just saying: “This is Doug. Don’t be Doug.” But Doug’s awful. And you’re not. So what can we less awful, more generous people do to help a self-centered, self-serving society that is afraid of losing….resources, freedoms, privileges, and power?

First, I think we need to be less shy about talking about money. The bible doesn’t shut up about money and all religions encourage generosity, so it shouldn’t be a topic people of faith avoid. Do our children and our youth know the happiness, health, and purpose in life we enjoy when we give generously?

Also, I think we could all benefit from examining our lives and considering where we could be more generous. For instance, when we vote, do we just vote along party lines, or do we listen to each candidate’s platform? Do we vote for candidates’ who promise to improve only our lives and our economic situation, or the candidates who will benefit the lives of the poor, the disenfranchised, the stranger? Do we invest in relationships beyond our small circle of family and like-minded friends? Do we take any great risks, or sacrifice resources we will really miss to benefit those whose need is greater than ours?

Generosity begets more generosity. I pray we can all enjoy the health, happiness and purpose in life our generosity inspires and encourage our society towards the same.

 

[Feature Image: yarenlen]

 

How I more than doubled the books I read as a busy, working mom

I love to read, always have. But after I became Mom to my two beautiful kids, I mourned the loss of my reading time. I’ve tried to convince my husband to read with me at night, side by side on the couch after the kids have gone to bed (so romantic!) But he reads during the day to prep for teaching his college classes and just wants to watch TV or movies at night. I want to spend time with him, so we typically watch TV or part of a movie, then I head to our bedroom upstairs for about thirty minutes of reading time before I fall asleep. With this scant amount of time dedicated to reading, I’d be lucky to finish eighteen books a year. It took me almost a year and half to finish Anna Karenina. (That book is like a trophy on my shelf now.)

I tried audio books, but found myself getting distracted, then losing the storyline, then quitting in frustration. This past December, though, I started something new.

I’m not sure how I started reading with both an audio book and a hard copy. I think I needed to read a book quickly for work and decided to buy it on Audible even though I already had a copy. But it worked. I’d listen to the audio book while driving, getting ready in the morning, exercising, folding laundry, doing the dishes. If I found myself getting lost, I’d return to the hard copy to re-read what I needed to get myself back on track with the story. Then I’d continue with the audio book.

Having to re-read the hard copy of a book may sound like it would take me twice as long to read a book. But now that I have found a way to make audio books work for me, I am reading books all the time—instead of just 30 minutes at night. I’ve even found that I’m learning how to focus on audio books better now.  Before I started this new reading method, I couldn’t listen to an audio book and exercise at the same time. Now I can.

Since I started reading books like this, using both audio books and a hard copy to turn to when I get lost, or reading both at the same time, I have read thirty books in 6 months. The key to this approach, though, is to avoid BUYING two versions of the same book. That would break the bank! So I’ve learned to rely on my local libraries for the hard copies of my books, shop the sales on Audible for credits, and use apps like Libby for older audio books to rent.

Happy reading!!

[Photo Credit: Magda K]

Prison Book Club

Fifteen minutes into our discussion of Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III, Harold raises his hand. We were in the cleanest, air conditioned classroom of the prison’s vocational building, but the fan was blowing directly above Harold’s head. “Would anybody mind if we shut this fan off?” Shutting the fan off would definitely warm the classroom.  But all twenty of us–seventeen inmates, two faculty and me (the college chaplain)–understood that Harold just wanted to hear the conversation better.  We agreed to shut off the fan.

This is par for the course in our book club discussions at the men’s prison 15 miles from our college’s campus. As our faculty lead discussions on books such as Plato’s Republic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Martian, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, the men lean forward in their seats, not wanting to miss a word. They are thoughtful, intelligent men who are hungry for opportunities to learn.  Our faculty love teaching in the prison. The men who attend our book club have renewed our vocation as educators.  Every time we are with these men we witness the liberating power of education. After class, each man expresses his gratitude for us coming to read books with them and oftentimes they write us heartfelt thank you notes.  Here are some quotes from the men about our book club:

“I felt like a free man for those two hours. The time went by so quickly.”

“We, as prisoners, are rarely the recipients of altruistic acts performed by strangers; therefore, in the rare occurrence when we are, not only do those acts connect us, albeit loosely, to society, but also they affirm our humanity.”

“Having the opportunity to read material that I normally wouldn’t is a breath of life infused into my soul…The collaborative open dialogue of the book club allows me to grasp on to the very thing which my closed prison environment was built to strip away, little-by-little, year after year…my humanity.”

“This book club has given a forum for those intellectuals among our population to gather and fellowship, as well as, challenge ourselves and each other. Perhaps the group’s greatest virtue is that the club is diverse and welcoming of people from different walks of life. In a profound way, your contributions have brought together men whom under normal circumstances may not associate, and so you’ve provided us all with the opportunity to grow beyond just the knowledge provided by the books we’ve read. Knowledge we glean from each other.”

Currently, there are many disturbing cases where books are being banned from prisons, in spite of evidence that reading builds empathy, emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills and reduces recidivism. We feel fortunate that our local state prison continues to let us run this book club.

Would you like to support the program? If you would like to purchase a book for an incarcerated man in our book club, please follow this link to review our wish list of upcoming books we have been approved to read.  If all the books are purchased, you can also support these men by buying a gift card that will be used to buy books we are approved to read in the future. All our books need to be paperbacks and go through an approval process at the prison.

 

Jesus’ Ascension and Max the Dog

It’s been TOO long since I’ve posted on my blog. One of my summer goals, along with getting back to meditating, is to start posting again.  So stay tuned….

I have been writing a lot, though, working on my first book and I have three Living by the Word articles out now in the Christian Century.  Here’s a link to the article I wrote on Jesus’ Ascension from Luke 24: 44-53–a text I find challenging and a little hokey.

And here’s a picture of our dog Max, who gets me every time when he begs like this with those big brown eyes.

img_2418.jpg

More to come!