Writing Courageously Through the Lenten Season
Writing is a Sacred tradition in many cultures. We revere the books that come from these cultures. It’s also a very sacrificial act, one that takes a lot of courage, honesty, and time. I’d like to talk about writing during Lent.
Traditionally, Lent gives some 46 days to prepare for Easter, a time of preparation for Christians for the sacrifice Jesus Christ made on the cross (and the subsequent cool resurrection part). The idea was that you were not just shocked, surprised, pleased, and quickly through Easter, but that you could think –over 46 days– about the impact this one act of self-sacrifice did for your faith. It’s mirrored in some ways by Advent.
But whereas Advent is about preparing for joy–a baby, a baby! Lent is about preparing for death and transition.
Christians often give up something for Lent–so that whenever they crave it, they will think of what Christ gave up for them. Chocolate and Life are not comparable; however, the idea is to be aware of the season through this sacrifice. Call it the best mindfulness exercise the Christians have come up with yet.
That said, whether you are Christian or not, we can take the Lenten Season to think about Faith, and perhaps, write about it. Or at least ask ourselves to write with more courage, more honesty, and more faith than we have in the past.
Writers are plagued with insecurity and negative thoughts. Let’s put those on the altar of Lent and say, hey, no more of these. We are afraid sometimes of writing our Truth and giving it to others. And we often have a lack of faith in our own abilities and ideas.
Lent leads us up to celebrating Life from Death. I don’t want to co-opt Jesus’s very big moment, but he too had a very big mission, and it got harder and harder to be honest, to be courageous and to follow through on what his mission was.
What I want to do is to ask writers to write for 46 days– science fiction, fantasy, memoir, essay, poetry–and write with more courage, more honesty and more faith than you ever have before. I also challenge you to write a little about faith.
It’s important for us as writers to believe in ourselves and our writing, to give up negative thoughts and insecurities, preparing our hearts to more honestly talk about Life. There is a lot of struggling that goes on in writing if we are to be honest–and struggling with being honest–and so, for 46 days, let the honesty flow. Be yourself. Be creative. Be courageous. Be honest. GIVE UP negative thoughts that question YOUR mission, and Create and GIVE something honest and courageous to the world.
Bring Writing Faith Workshop to Your Church
If you’d like to bring together a group of writers in your church for some writing tips and explorations of how writers write about faith, all while writing about your own faith experiences, consider bringing Writing Faith to your church. I can adapt this workshop to fit your needs. The full workshop is 13 weeks, but I can also teach 6 week, 4 week, one day seminars with themes. The workshop is normally built for those who haven’t had a lot of previous publishing experience or writing workshop experiences but who want to write, and who probably write in their spare time.
I can adapt the workshop for more advanced writers.
Themes available for shorter workshops:
Writing the Sacred Journey: In this course we write memoir, talking about our lives as a sacred journey and writing to try and capture the journey for ourselves and others to read. Journeys don’t have all the answers–but they have insights. We’ll read a lot about memoir and spiritual memoir in particular. Kathleen Norris, Anne Lamott, Andre Dubus, Annie Dillard are a few of the writers we read.
Writing for Social Justice: How can we use our faith to write about social justice? Justice, equality, the environment, race and gender, poverty, homelessness–these are BIG issues our society faces and it will take people who can talk about their own personal experiences to change the minds of those who make decisions. We will read some great writings from those leaders in social justice: Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mark Doty, Annie Dillard, and many others. We look at their writing to find ways of writing about our own lives and our own passions.
Writing the Spiritual Biography: So many people pass through our lives, helping us, mentoring us, and yet no one really knows them well. We have encountered people we’d like to write about–either a memoir piece that examines their intersection into our own lives, or a longer work that examines their lives. Learn how to write about those people who have meant something to you, your church, your family. Learn about interviewing, about writing someone else’s life. We’ll read excerpts from spiritual biographies, and write a few of our own.
Writing the LGBT Journey: this class is specifically designed for writers who identify as LGBT (or LGBTTQ…). We will use writers primarily who fall outside the expected gender boxes to talk to us about their faith. We will learn the importance these writers have in the discussions of faith and social justice. We will learn to write about our own bumpy, messy spiritual journeys that are probably marked as much by despair as they are by blessing. Nadia Bolz-Weber, Mark Doty, Jan Guenther Braun, as well as stories from anthologies of LGBT writers of multiple faiths, and fiction.
Writing Faith into Fiction: Fiction has the potential to be more powerful than memoir. It’s sneaky that way. It makes us care about characters, changes our minds about people, all by spinning a story. Jesus knew this. He spoke in stories. You can too. Fiction techniques are easy to learn–and couple well with memoir techniques. We will be reading excerpts and stories from some of the best writers of faith out there and picking up their techniques. Marilynne Robinson, Langston Hughes, John Updike, etc.
If you’d like to hear more about what I can offer your church, you can write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or come to a workshop I’m holding at UDLLI (Jan 12-Feb 23) and sit in for the first day (or take the class!) or come to Harmony Creek Church in Dayton Ohio, Jan 25, where I’ll give a talk about this class to their church in the Salon. There I’ll talk about what I teach, and we might even do an exercise or two. Look at this website to learn more about the course as well.
UDLLI offers Writing the Spiritual Journey (6 weeks)
Writing the Spiritual Journey (UDLLI on the U of Dayton Campus)
Excited to be able to offer this workshop to the University of Dayton’s Lifelong Learning Institute on the River Campus. 6 Weeks and registration information link is below.
How do you describe the indescribable without sounding preachy or crazy? What if you’ve had bad experiences with faith? Speak it honestly anyway. We need all voices to chart the faith journey. Open to all faiths and believers and seekers, this workshop will use readings and memoir writing exercises in both in-class and take-home assignments. Readings feature Annie Dillard, Langston Hughes, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Mark Doty, John Updike, Elie Wiesel and others. You will give fellow writers feedback in class and will become better equipped to edit your own writing by the end of the workshop.
6 Mondays, January 12 – February 23 (No seminar on January 19)
9:30–11:30 a.m. at River Campus
Seminar Limit: 16
Recommended text: A number of readings in PDF format will be available before the first seminar meeting. These will also be printed out and available as a packet.
Jerome Stueart earned his Ph.D. in creative writing from Texas Tech University and has been teaching writing workshops for more than 20 years. He is a 1996 recipient of the Milton Fellowship (now sponsored by the journal Image), designed to foster excellence in writing for Christians. His writing has been published in Geist, Geez Magazine, Joyland and many other journals, anthologies, newspapers and magazines. He is the co-editor of Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, an anthology of faith-inspired science fiction and fantasy. His first book about religion in an altered-history America, One Nation Under Gods, is forthcoming from ChiZine Publications (November 2015); his collection of short stories follows in 2016.
For information on how to register for this course, please follow this link.
The Book of Birmingham: Adding Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the Bible
I would like to see Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963) added to all new Bibles.
I don’t propose this lightly. Three times in the Bible, in three different places, listeners (and they wouldn’t have been readers) are exhorted not to add to, or take away, from specific books. One is about Revelation, one is specifically to the Israelites in Deuteronomy to listen to the law, and the other is in Proverbs: “Every word of God is true….do not add to his words, lest you be proved a liar.” I think it’s safe to say that I won’t propose adding any new words of God to the Bible. I’m advocating something less radical. If we can have letters from Paul, we can have letters from Martin.
When it comes to relevant living with each other, and honoring God, we have read and read Paul’s letters, noting his biases, and noting that these are letters about how to live the Christian life. I have poured over Galatians and Ephesians and both Thessalonians and I find great truth in there, but I also find irrelevancy in a historical culture that has long since passed. While the lessons learned are important, there are always the caveats: we must understand the context. No one is getting the context. People are reading Paul literally: “I don’t allow a woman to speak”. Contextualizing Paul has given many Bible colleges their raison d’etre for pumping out preachers. It gives preachers something to do.
They know the context, and may or may not choose to provide it during a sermon. They know Greek, Latin and Hebrew (some of them) and so they, and only they, can provide the secret words that are REALLY on the page that will help the average congregant truly understand the Bible. Without the help of preachers, we are lost, they seem to say. Priesthood of the Believer? Such a quaint idea that you can do this on your own anymore. If you don’t have a Preacher verifying your every thought and every decision, you could be driving on the wrong highway to a destination of chaotic quagmire (or Hell).
I’m not advocating removing a single letter of Paul from the Bible. After all, the different Councils worked SO hard deciding what everyone needed to read, I’d hate to ruin their 1700 year track record. (Surely they didn’t edit a thing from those letters, or made any decisions about who got into the Bible and who didn’t. Yeah.)
But I do think the Bible needs to be updated. If we’re going to be reading Letters about conduct of churches, there is nothing better than Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. It’s addressed to “fellow clergymen”, those who had undoubtedly studied the other 66 books of the Bible in depth and still felt like not taking a stand against racism and brutal treatment of blacks in the South during the Civil Rights movement. The 66 books did not address matters of race well, I suppose. It did not cover issues of civil rights, perhaps. Still today, we face a lot of racial tension and outright racism within the body of Christ. Because there is no text in the Bible that brings this to our attention on a Sunday by Sunday basis, we are free to avoid that topic on a regular basis. Free to believe that all the work is done, and that everyone is equal.
Injustice and Justice are important to consider as part of God’s Work. And yet, because there are few texts on justice and
How Anne Lamott Saved My Life
Having been raised in churches all my life, having done the double, triple, renewing salvation genuflect that Baptist kids do over their lives, knowing the plan of salvation in scripture form, calling card form, bracelet form, code form— you’d think that I was duly saved. You don’t really have to do it so many times.
Until your life is at stake.
Coming out to myself really hit me hard. It threw my sense of what I could believe in the Bible. Waking up to the idea that I had been misinformed at such a deep level about who I was, and what I was, made me wonder if the Bible (or Christians) could get wrong how God felt about being gay, what else could they get wrong? It threw me, too, into a world where I felt pretty lost.
But then one day, I found Anne Lamott. Actually, she was given to me, and the man who gave her book to me said, “Many people who have lost their faith have found it again after reading this book.”
He was a pastor in Oyster Bay, Peter Casparian, 1988 Quatrofilio Alfa Romeo-driving liberal Episcopal pastor preaching in an historic church, Christ Church, the church of Theodore Roosevelt. Over croissants and jam outside of a French Bakery, I came out to him. Because I was shaking, because I cried, and because I didn’t know what I wanted to believe any more, he said I should find a copy of Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, that it would restore my faith, or at least calm my nerves. I was frightened of churches, a little scared of the Bible…as if it were now riddled with land mines. If I go to Romans, bam! If I head to Genesis, boom!
Traveling Mercies is Anne Lamott’s honest memoir of trying out church. It’s not written like anything you’d find in a Christian bookstore. It’s refreshing. It comes at faith from a non-churched point of view. God is surprising, he’s real, he’s around the corner; Anne is the kind of believer who questions God, gets upset with him, does things wrong! does things surprisingly well! She is fearless in her attempts to believe in God, and in a quirky group of believers. Thank God she didn’t go to a stuffy, we-have-all-the-answers church.
I’ve heard people come away loving this book–and I certainly did. It renewed my faith despite having had it trounced by well-meaning folk. She provided a way back to the parts of faith that I loved and remembered. Faith is not Religion, but Religion can be made of Faith. For her there are only two prayers, “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I think that sums up most prayers well.
Anne Lamott allows herself to be so vulnerable, to be, as she puts it, “such a mess.”
Writing the LGBT Spiritual Journey, Saturday, April 5, Grand Rapids, MI
Please join us in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the weekend before the Festival of Faith and Writing (at Calvin College), for Writing the LGBT Spiritual Journey Workshop, APRIL 5, SATURDAY, 9am–5pm.
For the LGBT person of faith, the journey has not been easy. Many of us are refugees from mainline denominations that offer faith but only to some, or only with clauses attached. Some of us have escaped into better, more accepting faiths or denominations–but that journey may not have been easy. Charting our spiritual journey, though, can help bring focus and fulfillment to our lives as part of the LGBT community. Writing our spiritual journeys also completes the missing parts of society’s spiritual journey. In this Workshop we will read LGBT writers of faith, as well as writers of faith in general, to pick up tips and techniques that will help you write about your journey. If you like discussing spirituality in the context of the LGBT community, with others like yourself, and exploring through writing what your journey has discovered, come join us. Using writing exercises, games, techniques of professional writers, and your own lives, you will create writing that struggles, overcomes, even heals, as it maps the spiritual journey of your life. All faiths are welcome. All struggles are welcome. Even if your spirituality doesn’t fall neatly in a box, join us. Boxes aren’t the best places for spirituality anyway.
This class needs a minimum of five people to run. Some reading will be sent to you via email before the workshop begins. Cost is $80 per person. Sign up early so we can be sure that the workshop runs, and that you receive readings for the workshop. Bring a journal, a pen, and the heart of an explorer.
To sign up, follow this link. For more information, please contact Fountain Street Church.
Communion and Writing
I wonder if Jesus knew what modern churches would do with communion. Did he foresee the ceremony? The bigness of it? Did he foresee how infrequently some of us observe communion? We got big. Much bigger than the Last Supper (which no one called the Last Supper except in retrospect; for them it was just… supper.). We have a lot of people to maneuver through the line at communion, many people to serve in the pews.
Communion doesn’t have to be that big. It could just be supper.
I think communion happens every time we’re together, and even better with food. Wherever Christians gather together, wherever people of like faith, or different faiths, gather together over food, communion happens. We relax. We share. We laugh. We are vulnerable to each other. We commune.
I think for a writing group, a meal is important. Bringing something from our own kitchens, our own hearths, our own recipes can help us get to know someone better than just reading their writing. Oh, that will happen too, but the food that we share gives a part of us to each other too.
When we bare our writing, we share pieces of ourselves as well. But if we’ve shared a meal, we learn to trust each other in multiple ways already, and we are already relaxed.
I just know that the tension in a workshop goes down when you have coffee, cheese, enchiladas, a bowl of chili, or some sushi. People can reach over the table and grab some grapes while we’re talking. We’re more family when we eat together. And when we share our faith together, that sense of communion grows. When we share our disappointments, our bitterness, our private joys, our worries, our important beliefs, or when we hear others’ distinctly different versions of our beliefs, we relax and trust each other. With food, with our stories, with helping us become better writers.
At the bottom of a bowl of chili lies the best workshop you’ve ever had.