Lesley-Ann Hix Tommey
January 19, 2020
Scripture: Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31; John 16.12-15
Last year, at the Tony’s, Rachel Chavkin won best direction of a musical for her work on Hadestown. She was the only woman nominated in the category, and she was the only woman directing a musical on Broadway last season. She accepted her award and said, “There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be.”
I’m not a professional performer, but I know she’s right. Because this failure of imagination plagues every field of work, every system that governs us, every rigid, culturally-dependent opinion passed on to children. I remember my second-grade teacher telling me I was wrong when I chose to use some crazy colors to color-in a giraffe. It’s silly, but really, how many times are we repeatedly conditioned as children by being told, “Well that’s just not how it works”? Or we internalize what we sense, from all the people around us, that we’re limited to just what’s visible in front of us. We’re conditioned to see limitations, rules, our own shortcomings as our guide, and we quickly take the brokenness that surrounds us as just part of life.
Sometimes I believe the sin that causes humanity’s fall from Eden is actually simply a diminishing imagination, a stagnation of creative power. The first commandment God gives in the creation myths, after all, is a command to be fruitful and multiply. It’s a command to creativity. To not put boxes around things. To not assign value or rank. To not sell anything short. To name beauty and goodness, and to call more beauty and goodness forth. To imagine all that could be and to dare in that direction. To be with God in creating love and light out of nothing. To not stop creating. To not stop imagining.
In the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan, in the midst of the worst homelessness crisis the city has ever seen, I work with women who have experienced both domestic violence and homelessness. Our Living Well group is a committed cohort of women who journey together for 14 weeks, meeting twice weekly, to learn essential life skills, work through their traumas, set goals for the future, support each other and be empowered.
Through the women I work with, I have seen how the broken system they are up against incessantly dehumanizes them. I’ve heard stories of single women in shelter having to share beds with other women there, of families battling the system for more than three years, and of single moms getting kicked out of their shelter without notice. I’m learning that the trauma of domestic violence, on top of that, strips them of their voice, their identity and their souls.
But I also witness the instinct to thrive that is written into their DNA, pushing them forward, refusing to be extinguished.
We eat together, we practice yoga, we fix coffee and listen to each other hard, we remind one another of the moments where we’ve seen strength and courage in each other, we write, we make art, we cry, we read poetry, we learn about trauma, we practice mindfulness, and as a community, we put back together body and spirit. The women become family with each other, and they find their voice again.
One of our participants sang a solo at graduation last spring and then said, “I now have so much hope and joy. I want to share this with everyone I meet. I hope every can see how God took something so broken and put it back together so beautifully.”
That deep, intuition to thrive, to bring life forth from darkness is written into our DNA. God made us creative, limitless people. Creative does not just mean capital-A artistic. It is instead a posture, a mindset, finding solutions or connections where there weren’t obvious links before. Creativity is what compelled my community in New York to put a farm on top of a roof in midtown Manhattan. Creativity is what compels a professional singer and a woman experiencing homelessness into relationship. Creativity is what answers “Yes,” when everything else says, “No.” We are called to participate with God in bringing life from death, beauty from chaos and expansiveness from limitations. And it doesn’t end with our individual wholeness. Our creative power is a charge to renew the world, to recreate the world, and be whole as a whole community.
The Bible is full of this call from God. My favorite word in the whole Bible is most of the time translated as Spirit. The capital S kind of Holy Spirit. The Hebrew word is RUACH, a feminine noun understood as an invisible force, and in the Old Testament, it comes out in English as “mind,” “breath,” “anger,” “wind,” “blast” and “courage.” In Proverbs, we learn that Woman Wisdom is a separate creative force in the world, but all still part of God. Woman Wisdom was at creation with God. In Genesis, RUACH works with God, hovering over the waters and filling everything with the breath of life. And we know God is a collaboration here because God says, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.”
This same Spirit is how Noah is to determine who he should bring on the arc: “two and two of all flesh in which there is the breath of life.” And the RUACH wind blows over the earth to dry the flood. The Spirit shows up in dreams of powerful tyrants—Pharaoh and King Nebuchadnezzar—and troubles them. She divides the waters of the sea for the Israelites to cross on dry ground and compels them to bear each other’s burdens in the wilderness. The Spirit is in Hannah in the form of sorrow, as she prays to God for a child. RUACH is in the valley of the dry bones, calling them back to life. She is the wind God sends to trouble the sea when Jonah runs. She shows up in call narratives, fills people, is poured out on people and gives gifts of prophecy. Joel 2:28 says, “I will pour out my RUACH on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your elders shall dream dreams, and your young people shall see visions. Even on the slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”
This pouring out of the spirit always comes hand-in-hand with a call to justice. RUACH fills us with life, gives us our identity, connects us with all living beings and calls us to be creative, to create a more just world. We are called to creativity not just to make beautiful, soul-lifting art, but to imagine and enact God’s vision for our world—where the poor inhabit the kingdom of God, the oppressed inherit great reward, the hungry are filled and the merciful are shown mercy. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the charge to creativity is repeatedly about release for the captives, care for the orphan, widow and foreigner, and recovery of sight for the blind. That vision of justice is the heart of God and embodied in Jesus, and God beckons each of us into that creative task with them.
Here, in John, Jesus is speaking to his friends on the night of his arrest. He tells them everything he can, as much as he can. And finally, he notices out loud that it’s maybe all too much, and maybe it doesn’t make much sense right now. “But don’t worry,” he tells his disciples. “The Spirit’s going to be with you, and she’ll help you understand.” Jesus says some stuff about the Spirit speaking and declaring what is to come. “She will tell you about the future. She will bring me glory by telling you whatever she receives from me.”
I can’t help but notice a connection to the creation story. In Genesis, over and over again, God speaks things existence. “Let there be light,” God says. So maybe what Jesus is talking about here, maybe the work of the Spirit is not exactly to fill our heads with words, but to bring forth life, to bring beauty, truth and goodness forth from chaos, to bring understanding, yes, of course, to call us to wake up, but all through creativity.
This inspired wind, RUACH, is God’s palpable energy alive in creation, filling each of us up with life, connecting all of us to the whole created world, and calling us to creativity.
Creative life breath.
No matter how risky or vulnerable creativity is, with every single breath we breathe, we still fill our lungs with God’s limitlessness.
Justice-seeking requires that limitlessness. Making good news tangible requires that imagination. Until we can imagine a world where hunger, racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia and violence don’t exist, then we won’t ever be reaching, working or creating big enough. We can expand our imagining by listening to the stories of those who don’t share our social location, by putting ourselves in places that demand we sit with our discomfort, by preferencing voices that haven’t been traditionally privileged. How can we offer a wider embrace? How are we unapologetically proclaiming the value of each of our siblings? How are we enacting liberation for all of creation? How are we breaking through barriers and creating a way where there wasn’t before?
Majora Carter grew up in the South Bronx, an area that handles more than 40% of the city’s commercial waste, sewage treatment plants, power plants and has one of the lowest ratios of parks to people in the city. It’s an area that was redlined by the banks, and in 1955, Robert Moses’ highway project cut through the neighborhood, displacing 600,000 people. One in four children in the South Bronx has asthma, and their asthma hospitalization rate is seven times higher than the national average. Twenty-five percent of the neighborhood is unemployed, and 50% of residents live at or below the poverty line. Majora learned from an early age that nothing good comes from her neighborhood.
The neighborhood is still feeling the effects of antiquated and oppressive zoning, and in the early 2000s, Majora and her community realized that the people doing the “planning” were never going to have their best interests in mind. So they decided to do some planning of their own. It began by turning an abandoned waterfront property into a park. Hunts Point Riverside Park became the first waterfront park in the South Bronx in more than 60 years. And the power and imagination of the community grew from there. Majora wrote a $1.2 million federal transportation grant to construct a greenway, with designated bike paths. They began a project called the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training, that provides job training in ecological restoration so that folks in their community can have the skills needed to compete for the jobs that these park projects created. They recognized how underutilized the Sheridan Expressway actually is, so the community created an alternative transportation plan that is allowing for the removal of the highway—the de-construction of the highway, that New York City voted on, just began last year. The area the highway covered will be turned into affordable housing and miles of parks. The community is imagining and recreating their neighborhood. Dreaming about what could be possible on the 28 acres the highway occupied led to an investment in a community that had been systemically disinvested for decades.
That’s the same kind of dreaming the Hell’s Kitchen South Coalition is cultivating in my neighborhood of Manhattan, as they stand up against the city, advocating for green spaces where the world’s busiest commuter bus terminal holds blocks abandoned and desolate. That’s the same kind of dreaming the New Sanctuary Coalition acts out of when they bring lawyers and law students together with residents who are undocumented to work on creating a safe living space for all of our neighbors. That’s the same kind of dreaming that finds housing and helps resettle refugees, or that installs solar panels. And that’s the same kind of dreaming that opens up rooms in a church for a community syringe exchange.
No matter how we imagine new life for our own selves, for our neighborhoods and siblings, for our governing systems, the spirit is moving through us and compelling us to never stop creating, to never stop imagining, and to be inspired, to be inspired so much so that we cannot not get to work, releasing the captives, caring for the orphan, widow and foreigner, and opening up each other’s eyes.
Come, creative wind, lead us into unlimited, expansive creation.