The Blessing is Outside your Comfort Zone

“The blessing is outside your comfort zone.”  I recently heard this quote on a podcast about the spiritual practice of running.  But this truth extends beyond the topic of physical exercise.

A month ago, I was escorted to a classroom in the men’s maximum-security prison twenty minutes from my home. I was there to teach a class to fourteen inmates on the meaning and importance of empathy for healthy, human relationships.  The class was part of a research program funded by New York University to offer support and resources to the incarcerated and hopefully reduce the rate of recidivism.  Ten of us at my college have volunteered to develop and teach a liberal arts, literature-based curriculum as part of this program.

As I prepared for the class, I felt anxious about the teaching and about how I would be received.  From the volunteer training, I expected to meet murderers and sex offenders as well as men serving unreasonable, unjust sentences for minor drug charges.  I expected the men to come from lives and backgrounds vastly different than my own.  I expected the majority of the inmates to be black and brown—because these are the people we incarcerate in America today.  (I was right, there was only one white man in the class of fourteen.)  I expected that I would have to win them over and earn their respect, in spite of what seemed like huge relationship obstacles.

But when I arrived, early, they were already in the classroom at their desks.  I decided not to sit behind the large teacher’s desk at the front of the room, but rather sit at a student’s desk in a circle among them.  One of the inmates didn’t like the rickety desk I had chosen to sit in, so he stood up and insisted I take his because, as he told me, it was better.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and I asked them to share why they were interested in the class.  Their answers varied a little, but every man shared that he wanted to better himself, wanted to learn, and wanted to give back to his family, his community and his society.

The men devoured the literature I had given them to read.  I asked them to read one chapter of a book and instead they read the whole book.  And when the class was over, every single inmate, before leaving, took a moment to shake my hand, look me in the eye, and say, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for teaching us.” Clearly, I had an amazing experience teaching this class full of engaged, thoughtful, respectful men who, I discovered, defied many of my expectations and assumptions.

I’ve been back to the prison many times now to teach.  It’s never comfortable going there.  I have to leave my cell phone in the car, cutting me off from communication with the outside world. (This is terrifying.) To get to the classroom I have to walk through multiple large metal doors that open as I approach, then close and lock behind me. (Prison is no place for the claustrophobic.) But the men I meet there, the stories I hear, the meaningful conversations we have and the pain I feel when the class is over, knowing they will go back to a small shared cell with paint peeling off the walls, is worth traveling twenty minutes down the road where the blessing lies outside my comfort zone.

[Feature Image: Mitchell Haindfield]

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What is stopping you?

Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) will be on September 21st and 22nd this year. In preparation for this new beginning, The Well is offering reflection prompts for each day of the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah.  The prompt I discovered this past Saturday on Twitter was so good, I couldn’t help but  #Reflect4Rosh myself.

Here’s the prompt:

What do you hope to let go of in your life?  What is stopping you?

Here are a few of my answers:

  • My monkey mind that climbs every tree of distraction
  • My compulsion to pre-plan and fear of spontaneity
  • My desire for more (time, money, cool stuff, love, attention, kudos, success) in the face of what is already enough.
  • My fear of looking or sounding stupid
  • Saying “yes” to things that I should say “no” to
  • The way I allow certain people to irritate and anger me
  • Watching stupid television at night or staring at my Facebook feed instead of reading a good book or simply going to bed

How about you?  What do you hope to let go of?  What is stopping you?

#Reflect4Rosh

[Feature Image: Thomas Hawk]

God as an annihilating silence

Annihilate (verb): destroy utterly; obliterate; defeat

Christian Wiman describes God as an “annihilating silence” in My Bright Abyss.

What does Wiman mean by this?  That God is a soundless, destructive force?  That God is an unapprehensible energy moving among us?  Or, that God is a SILENCE that can destroy all the NOISE of our life, all the CHAOS and CACOPHONY that exists in our world and turns us from God?

As I sit here, pen to clean pad of paper, writing what I think and thinking as I write, SILENCE focuses me, SILENCE guides me, SILENCE destroys the doubt and distraction that inevitably rise but cannot flourish within the absence of noise.  God is in this annihilating SILENCE and I am in God.

[Feature Image: “Silence” by Giulia van Pelt]

 

Breathing with the Trees

We just returned from a week of camping in Northern Michigan.  I love the trees in the campground where we stay.  Walking among them, listening to the wind rustling their leaves, standing aghast at the blue sky to which they point, is worship.

Two years ago I wrote this blog post about our trip to Interlochen, Michigan, where we have gone camping for the past six summers.  My parents took me camping here when I was a child and now we take our kids.  It’s a Sabbath tradition that I adore.  This is the one week of the year when I truly unplug, look up, and consider the beauty of the world in which we live.  Trees like this just help me breathe better.

On our drive home from Interlochen, I read “Instructions for an Evening of Your Life” by Sarah Bessey.  Even though Sarah advises her readers to find a body of water to sit by, this post resonated with me after my week of camping in the trees.  Bessey writes:

Become acquainted with the silence in your own soul, you might be surprised by the sound of you. Sometimes you might rise up in gratitude and thanksgiving, other times the pain you’re finally allowing yourself to feel might be overwhelming, sometimes your soul feels like worship and sometimes this feels like encountering a stranger – do I know you? Then sometimes it might simply feel like a good friend you haven’t seen in far too long and you’ll think to yourself, why don’t I do this more often? 

We all need moments, vacations, sabbath time, to get reacquainted with the silence in our soul and the sound of ourselves–the more often the better.  Otherwise, the beauty of the world and the beauty that is “me” will go unappreciated and unnoticed.

Stephen King’s Advice for Preachers

Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing, is popular among writers seeking to improve their craft. But it wasn’t until I read Maggie Zhang’s article, “22 Lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer”, that I realized preachers could learn a lot from King too.
Read the full list of practical advice for yourself.  These are the points, though, that I believe are especially helpful for preachers:
1.     Stop watching television.  Instead, read as much as possible.
As a college chaplain, when my students are obsessed (still) with Grey’s Anatomy, it is valuable for me to be culturally-clued in enough to know what they are talking about.  But King makes a great point when he says that television is “poisonous to creativity.”  He says “writers need to look into themselves and turn toward the life of the imagination.”  Preachers do too.  I often find myself wishing that the church of today could be more creative in a way that moves beyond the latest guru’s “outside the box” thinking.  Reading good literature, creative nonfiction, and poetry awakens our imagination, sparking insight and ideas. Sermon writing can only benefit from such a practice.
2.     Tackle the things that are hardest to tackle. 
Tackling difficult texts and issues makes us dig deeper as preachers.  King says, “stories are found things, like fossils in the ground.”  Sermons should be found as well.  Preachers need to not only dig exegetically deep into the text, but also within ourselves and the life of our listening community.  The preacher who doesn’t dig deep doesn’t discover  or preach anything new.  During the sermon writing process, preachers would be wise to remember Robert Frost’s advice, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
3.     When writing, disconnect from the rest of the world.
King suggests, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”  This is especially important for preachers whose first sermon draft can be inhibited by fear of what others will think.  I try to write my first sermon draft just for myself.  No one else will hear or read this first draft.  Only after I have gotten down what I feel called to preach do I open the door to the editing process. The result is a sermon that is more authentic and true.
4.     Don’t be pretentious.
“One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones,” King says.  In the preaching genre, I relate this to using big churchy words, or religious jargon that only the (ever decreasing) insiders will understand. As a college chaplain ministering among the most religiously unaffiliated generation, I know that even the word “ecumenical” needs to be defined.  On the other hand, some of the church’s traditional liturgy resonates deeper than words that are more contemporary.  For instance, when a young person hears the words, “You are dust and to dust you will return” and receives the sign of the cross in ash on their foreheads after listening to a sermon on death—you can bet life suddenly feels more precious.  It’s pretentious to withhold such experiences from our community.  But they need to be translated for today’s society.
5.     Take risks; don’t play it safe.
At a preaching conference, I heard Dr. Brad Braxton say that the American pulpit could use a healthy dose of courage and I agree. We pastors are human beings who desire to be liked and loved just like anyone else.  But this oftentimes leads us to play it safe in the pulpit. In our fear over upsetting someone, we avoid taking risks, being prophetic, and digging deeply into difficult texts and issues. King says, “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”  I’m convinced the same is true of preaching.
6.     Don’t try to steal someone else’s voice.
It may be good practice to imitate the style of another writer or preacher.  But, for the sake of authenticity, it is crucial that the preacher’s voice in the pulpit is the same as his or her voice out of the pulpit.  I’ve known pastors who have a “preacher’s voice” in the pulpit—sometimes big and booming, sometimes sing-songy, always false.  People are hungry for preachers to be their real selves in the pulpit.  Anything else just feels put on.
7.     Have the guts to cut.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribblers heart, kill your darlings,” King says.  Your “darlings” are the words, phrases, stories or illustrations you adore as a writer or preacher, but that don’t serve your larger message.  Kurt Vonnegut says, “If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.”  This is painful when we have written something we love.  But it is so important.  For the sake of clarity and effective delivery of our creative, surprising, deeply dug message, we preachers need to be our own ruthless editors.

We belong to each other

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. — Walt Whitman

*****

I took a class on the personal essay and memoir at a weeklong writing conference this summer.  What attracts me to these conferences is not just the focus on writing, but on the variety of people I meet.  Last week’s class included three widows, a lawyer, a real estate agent, a professor of physiology, a Jewish-Buddhist turned Secular Humanist, a former alcoholic and cocaine addict, a conflict mediator, a motherless daughter, an adoptee, and a pastor.  The essays we wrote reflected the diversity of  our life experiences: a heart-wrenching account of aid work in Haiti, a one night stand, a stripper who boarded her horse at the writer’s stable, a journey of self-discovery through the choice of men’s cologne.

Whitman’s “Song of Myself” reminds me of what becomes clear in every writing class I take.  Although we are a diverse people, celebrating and singing our unique songs, every atom of mine is yours as well.  Or, in other words, we are deeply and intimately connected through our biology as well as some universal truths about the human condition.  These universal truths always arise in the writing workshop: our human desire to know and be known, to be accepted, respected, appreciated and loved; every person has a story to tell; everyone knows pain, suffering, grief and loss; everyone has the power to create, but, like a muscle, our creative side needs to be exercised in order to realize its transformative potential.

Whitman’s words also remind me that we don’t just belong to ourselves, even though our individualistic American culture tells us otherwise.  Because of our shared biology and the universal truths of our human condition, we belong to each other.  Which means we are responsible for each other.  Each writing class I have taken has had a very skilled teacher leading it, but everyone in the class bears a responsibility to each other. The doctor’s oath of “do no harm” could be our oath as well, especially while offering critique on personal writing.  In class we practiced how to share space and air time with everyone in the room. We practiced attending to each writer and his or her needs.  We practiced offering constructive criticism in a way that could be received well and truly heard.  We practiced respect.  It wasn’t perfect.  Some group members were more responsible and sensitive than others.  But this is the challenge of every class, every group, every community made up of fallible human beings.  The hope for me, though, comes in the desire to gather and in the connections made across difference—connections we had not realized before, but that always exist among a people who belong to each other.

Poetry for the Nation

“Poetry comes from conflict,” the poet Dorianne Laux says. “If it’s all nostalgia and wonderful it’s a hallmark card. If it’s a political rant, it’s an essay. Poetry is somewhere in between.”

On this Independence Day, I need something in between.  So I was excited to discover www.lovesexecutiveorder.com where a poem will be posted every week during Donald Trump’s presidency.  Matthew Lippman, the editor and founder of the site, wrote this week’s poem–exactly what I needed to read today.

A United States of America Poem
by Matthew Lippman

The United States is still here.
That’s why you have to go kiss your kids before they head out to the school bus.
That is why you have to go out to the dead tree,
cut it down,
rip up the stump,
plant a new tree,
maybe a Japanese Maple
because the Japanese Maple is red
and America is still here.
It’s in the bedroom, under the bed,
next to the plastic bin with all the summer tee shirts,
the blue one with ponies on it,
the same ponies that run and up down hills in West Virginia and Cold Springs, NY,
the ones you rode as a kid
when the air smelled of sweet lilac and burgundy autumn.
You fell off of one once,
landed on America, and America picked you up
like a grandfather who still had his strength,
put you on his knee,
and rubbed your cheeks to make you feel new again.
That America.
It’s still here in the ignition of the car,
you’ve just got to go find the keys and fire her up,
4 cylinders or 6, it does not matter.
It doesn’t matter that the mudslide in Big Sur
which crushed Highway One
crushed Highway One,
you can still get America going again,
drive over the stones and smashed trees to the other side
where the ocean goes on forever,
where America says hello in waves and sea glass
and hints at revolution.
You know that revolution,
the one that means well for the guy at the farm-stand
and the gal in the office with the big windows,
the revolution of a man with no home
and the woman with no food
that still believes in the belly of the day,
that there is a word called yes, which will lead her to a door
and that she can,
with her last ounce of strength,
turn the knob and walk through.
It’s that America that is still here and it lives in your heart.
The one that beats so strong you have to kiss your kids
before they head out for school with the lunchboxes and lunch money
and provided lunch service—the apples, the apple juice,
the turkey sandwiches on wheat bread
with the crust cut off.
It’s an America for today, the most necessary today,
where Georgia and New York, Vermont and California and Idaho and Paris, Texas
have all gotten together like old friends reunited,
sitting at the river on cotton blankets
not talking.
Not even listening.
Just being united states under one sky.
It’s blue. It’s not red or white.
It’s a blue sky
and it’s here where it has always been.
You have to believe this.
You have to go outside right now and find it.
It’s easy.
Just look up.

If you need to read more poetry of resistance, visit www.lovesexecutiveorder.com and click subscribe to receive a weekly poem in your inbox.

[Image by Alex McClung]