Friday, July 15, 2011

Finding our voice at the edge of the unknown: a workshop at JTS

It's so easy to get lost. When you're caring for somebody who's really ill or really suffering, their pain -- including feelings of hopelessness they may have -- can overwhelm not only them but also us. Skilled chaplains learn to walk alongside people in their pain and uncertainty -- to get down in the pit with them -- but skilled chaplains also need to be able to step out of that pit, to reconnect with God and their holy sources of support, purpose, and meaning. Through this kind of act of reconnection from places of despair, the chaplain can also help the suffering person to find their own way out of the pit and to reconnect with the sources of holiness and meaning in their own lives.

This week, Minna and I worked with pastoral care students at the Jewish Theological Seminary to help them grow in just this type of work. We brought together elements of workshops we had done separately before. Minna's great skill is with voice -- both using her own voice as a singer and helping others to find their own voices in her role as a voice teacher and spiritual guide. My focus has been on what I call personal Midrash or spiritual reflection -- a way of finding meaning from our own experiences with the help of our holy texts and other resources. The moment where I really felt our work coming together into one was when Minna used a holy resource -- an ancient Midrash on the Song at the Sea -- to ask people to reflect on their own moments of victory and of uncertainty in their life experience.

Minna asked us to stand and sing the opening lines of the song together -- the song the Israelites sang in joyous gratitude after God saved them from Pharaoh's soldiers by splitting the sea. As the sound of each other's voices washed over us, Minna asked us to imagine something with the help of an ancient Midrash, one that suggests the Israelites actually sang the song while still crossing the sea. "Imagine your own preemptive victory song," she asked. "Your own song anticipating a victory in your life."

As I switched in my own mind to imaging myself singing of victory while still in a moment of fear and uncertainty, I was stunned to realize I had moved -- while singing the very same words! -- from an expression of thanks to an expression of sincere prayer; to an expression of humbly asking God for the victory, for the redemption from moments of fear. Around me, I heard the words of the song coming from my own mouth and others:
Ozi v'zimrat Yah, va'y'hi li lishu'ah.
עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה
Yah is my strength and my song and has become my rescue.

As one of the rabbinical student participants expressed, being amid people singing the same words created a community experience -- I was being pulled along by the others in my prayer amid my fear. They were helping me find my own way out of the dangerous sea.

Later, I wondered what an experience like this could mean to a person truly standing at the edge of the unknown amid illness, suffering and profound uncertainty: to feel pulled along by others, or even just one chaplain, an act of healing that would be assisted by Holy resources like the song, but that would also be rooted in the most physical of experiences, the experience of using our own physical voice. This is truly what I would call spiritual reflection, or even personal Midrash -- the use of our spiritual imaginations in dialogue with our Holy resources.

After our singing and reflection, Minna invited us to actually write our own preemptive victory songs, to create something that we could carry (and that could also carry us) as we face uncertainty or the unknown in our own lives or in the lives of those to whom we minister. In the songs we heard, one student beautifully combined parts of a holy resource we talked about during our presentation -- Psalm 30, which we say in the morning liturgy just before Pesukei d'Zimra/Verses of Song -- with her own pleas and questions, including questions about the role of women and women's voices in Judaism. Another student adapted the tune of the Beatles' "Long and winding road" giving it words that reflected her own current life concerns and questions, and concluding with the original song's plea for help to find the way.

I was also impressed with the way one student's song reflected a kind of deep tension that many of us feel with our holy resources -- they are both sources of profound meaning for us, but can also be difficult and troubling. She took a hymn whose melody she loves but whose words she finds troubling and adapted it with new words. And the part of me that sometimes feels I'm stumbling through life was moved by one student's story of riding a bicycle race with a bent wheel. In his song, I saw a resource for continuing on in the face of difficult circumstances and disappointment.

The workshop had opened with one of Minna's own songs -- a beautiful song called Edge of the unknown that she wrote while she was engaged in her own pastoral training (the video is from a performance she did in Reading a few months back):

I had also shared with the student's some thoughts I have about the theology of the book of Psalms, a book that (in Psalm 30) cries out with the words (verse 10):

'What profit is there in my silence, in my going down to the pit
מַה-בֶּצַע בְּדָמִי, בְּרִדְתִּי אֶל-שָׁחַת:
Can dust praise You? Can it tell of your truth?
הֲיוֹדְךָ עָפָר; הֲיַגִּיד אֲמִתֶּךָ.

It was a great experience!

Shabbat Shalom!

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