Post author Brian Crisp is former chairman of Pullen’s Missions & Outreach Council. He studies Hebrew Bible and Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School and has been a guest on our pulpit.
Sometimes in the Hebrew Bible very strange things happen. One of the most peculiar occurrences is a talking donkey. Yes, a talking donkey. In the Book of Numbers, Balaam’s impediment to travel with the servants of Balak is his donkey who refuses to cross divine messengers. Balaam, ignorant of the divine presence, responds by physical beating the animal. After the third beating, the voice and presence of YHWH exclaims through the mouth of the lowly animal servant, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”
This past year I have been keen to the physicality found throughout the sacred texts: chase, spit, touch, dance, feed, wash, feast, strike, beat, burn, caress. It would be disingenuous to say that this interest was merely academic. The impetus for this work was birthed in a small room visibly entombed by painted concrete that shunned both sunlight and fresh air where thirteen women, defined by crime, gathered on a Monday evening at the Tennessee Prison for Women. With their dignity stripped by a system that only views them as threats and problems, our communion began to emphasize our last remaining possessions: eyes, mouths, feet, calves, fingers, toes, ears, necks.
Together, in the cold months, we began to sit closely with legs touching hoping to share the warmth of our bodies. During the heat and humidity, our sweat and smells blended with the laughing, crying, and meaning making. At times, we danced so wildly and loudly accompanied only by our hand clapping and foot stomping that the guard became more starch and rigid with her looks. We wrote down words and placed paper and pens in each others’ hands. In small groups of three, we spoke, pausing and creating space for others to borrow and transform our words. We touched each other feeling knees, cheeks, shoulders, hips as we offered prayers that murmur, “Lord, touch these throbbing knees that scrape on concrete floors,” and “God, ease this ole headache that just ain’t stopping.” Thirteen women began to show me that holding hands, looking into eyes, touching a forehead, sharing a voice, and embracing a torso are gospel moments by gospel people.
For the past three weeks Pullen members have gathered to examine the body as a source of theological reflection in a series called EnSpiriting the Body. Together we mined our own body stories of dancing and swirling, sweating and flushing, and protesting stubbornly in the street to unearth sources of creation. We retold Jesus stories using only verbs and words associated with the body freely rearranging the order to recapture the fleshly component of the gospel. Lastly, we connected the physical details of systemic murder and genocide using the autobiography and autopsies of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Hiroshima survivor, Akiko Takakura to write prayers of justice and more fully understand the physical abuses of exploitation, discrimination, prejudices, and imperialism. Our embodied communion finished with participants praying and the following words by Vickie Leigh capture a glimpse of this poetic work.
Birthing, a life on an idea,
I can’t breathe.
Breaking the chains that bond,
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
Birthing, new life, flesh ideas, A shift.
Can I breathe?
These are words we collectively felt, as Jeremiah proclaimed, shut up in our bones.
The Divine Irony of these Enspiriting the Body workshops occurred as members gathered in the beauty of Poteat Chapel to discuss the theological implications of the body while the perimeter of Pullen has become encamped by a contingent of Raleigh’s unhoused and unwanted. The donkey, a maddening symbol of royalty and tomfoolery in the Hebrew Bible, talks back to Balaam. Later we are told that YHWH gives the prophet the vision to truly see, and Balaam then falls to the ground in remorse and disbelief. I imagine in the bodily actions of the unhoused we are hearing a lot of talking back. “Where would you like me to sleep so I am not bothering you?” “Where should I urinate when there are bathrooms available only to consumers?” “Where do I wash my hands and face after being outside in the sun all day?” “Where can I cry and moan and curse and laugh over my aching joints, neglected face, and tumultuous feelings?”
Personally, returning to Pullen has been so refreshing this summer, and one of the most thrilling sights has been seeing a camp of unhoused and unwanted people using her grounds to find sanctuary. Sometimes in life, very strange things happen, and I jokingly refer to this developing peculiarity as “Hotel Pullen.” Withstanding the joke, my flesh knows this is an embodied Divine Sign that is calling and begging for a response. As all of us know, Call and Response are not easy or linear, and it comes with great challenges, difficult heartaches, and even greater messiness. Yet, Divine Calling keeps happening for this great congregation, and it echoes the message found in the story of Balaam and his donkey, “truly, who is the prophet?”