Last year, at about this time, I wrote a blog post on my wonderful experience at a weeklong clergy writing workshop. I had the great privilege to attend this year as well. Different characters this time around, but the same location and the same underwriters and hosts. I offer deep thanks to the Collegeville Institute, the Lilly Endowment and the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ for this opportunity to focus on writing, to gather in a community of writers, and to experience Sabbath, in a time and place away from the normal routines of life and ministry.
Writing can be such an isolated, and isolating, endeavor. Generally, I write—sermons, blog posts, newsletter pieces, etc.—when I am alone. A little inspiration is helpful too. The opportunity, then, to gather in a community of writers even for a week—to write, ponder, discuss and share—is time to be treasured.
This year’s workshop focused on writing as spiritual practice, and writing as a path for spiritual awakening. I found much of the workshop to be a little more challenging than I expected, and that was a very good thing. I’ve been reflecting on the writing I do and pondering a variety of ways of approaching words, images, metaphor, etc. During our week together, we also shared and talked and listened to each other. It’s hard to articulate what a vibrant, rich and nurturing atmosphere blossomed in our midst.
At the beginning of the week, our fearless leader, Karen Hering, led us in various paths of awakening, offering writing prompts utilizing simple phrases or objects that we could hold, prompts that led to colorful drawings, mapping, or reflections shaped by cutting and pasting. There were stories, essays and poems to be pondered and words with which we played. During the sessions, we sometimes talked about our writing and responses in pairs or small groups, and sometimes we did not. By the end of the week, each of us led a short writing session, each choosing a word or phrase and developing our own mini-workshop.
My word was “word.” I led the group through a process of considering the harm and the healing, the danger and the wonder, that can come from words. We focused on common, everyday words and experimented with the possibilities of the simple words of our lives and how they present the opportunity to point to the divine and profound. To demonstrate, I read from Frederick Buechner’s “The Innkeeper” from his book The Magnificent Defeat. In that short piece, Buechner offers a first-person narrative of the infamous innkeeper from the gospel of Luke, where there is no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph. The innkeeper explains that he was busy, “lost in a forest of a million trees.” He’s running a business and there’s a lot to do. So, in that transformative moment when no one became someone, when the baby uttered his first cry, the innkeeper was lost in the “unenchanted forest of a million trees,” and missed it.
Common, simple everyday words. They have the capacity to point us to significant truths, if we give them the room and the opportunity to work their magic.
Such was last week, where I read and listened to beautiful, thoughtful, provocative and evocative language, where I was invited into a group of writers. We began the week as strangers (or, as expressed in the word that was given birth during the course of the week, “strangels”—a mix of stranger and angel), but became friends, a community.
Deep and abiding gratitude to you, for your words, for your ministry, for your generosity of spirit, and for your friendship: Donna, Mary Ellen, Kevin, Will, Patricia, Vicky, Dietmar, Jen, Ellie, Geordie, and Karen. And, to Alyssa, who took such good care of us. To Ellie and Andrea from the Massachusetts Conference, for your work and care that brings this program to Massachusetts. And, to the Collegeville Institute and the Lilly Endowment, for the work you do to support and encourage clergy. I am profoundly grateful for the workshop I attended, and know that it will shape my ministry in the days, weeks, and years ahead. Thank you.