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Beacon Press: UU Discussion Guides: Proverbs of Ashes

Discussion Guide: Proverbs of Ashes


Binding Information: Paperback 
Price: $18.00 In stock. 

This guide was made possible by a grant from the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock.

Guide written by Sofía Betancourt & Julia Watts Belser.

Contents

Introduction

Proverbs of Ashes: Violence,Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us provides us with a testament to the power of oft-silenced voices and illuminates the way our personal stories can become calls for liberation. With gripping honesty and unapologetic truth-telling, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker model a process by which individuals and religious communities can reflect on their personal and shared histories in order to challenge limiting theologies and reshape our common truths.

The authors call us to engage with the narratives of Jesus’ death and the meanings that our cultures and religious communities attribute to it. Parker writes, “When theology presents Jesus’ death as God’s sacrifice of his beloved child for the sake of the world, it teaches that the highest love is sacrifice.” (Proverbs of Ashes, p. 25) Regardless of our personal beliefs about sin, suffering, and salvation, we are still affected by cultural perceptions that good comes to us because we have suffered. Instead of sacrifice, Proverbs of Ashes calls us to reimagine what it means to realize our full spiritual potential.

Throughout the book the authors wrestle candidly with weighty issues, including suicide, sexual abuse, domestic violence, racism, homophobia, the struggle for transgender rights, and the challenges of bridging multiple cultural identities. Instead of focusing explicitly on the particular social justice issues raised by the book, we have chosen to engage with the larger project that the authors describe – acknowledging violent theologies and seeking to transform them in our own lives and in the lives of our religious communities.

This is difficult emotional work. As a leader, you may find yourself facilitating some very challenging discussions. We encourage you to work with your minister or another person whose spiritual counsel you trust. It is important that you be supported as you support others in this work and that you remain clear in your own mind about the nature of such a study group as thoughtful reflection upon experience, rather than as therapeutic processing of raw experience. Some participants may find themselves grappling with issues that are beyond your expertise. We encourage you to refer them privately to your minister or to other professionals in the community.

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Getting Started

Promote the Program

Many congregations have a number of resources for publicizing new programs in the community. It is always a good idea to create flyers and post notices on bulletin boards and in newsletters. Announcements during meetings and services help spread the word. Some congregations promote new programs by organizing “Kick-off Sundays,” which include a sermon by a minister or lay leader about a related topic.

You might consider targeting specific groups to embark on this journey. This series is ideally suited for use in covenant groups (small group ministry), women’s groups,adult religious education classes, and book clubs.

Adjust the Format as Needed

This program includes reading, reflection, and participation in three two-hour discussion sessions. We recommend a group size of no more than ten people. While the discussion guide offers specific questions, readings and activities, feel free to adapt the program to your own needs. You can substitute your own questions, include your own readings and prayers, adapt those that are provided here, and add thoughts of your own. 

Provide a Comfortable Setting

Hold the session in a comfortable, well-lit, accessiblesetting, with chairs arranged in a circle. Some discussions will be carried out in small groups of two to four people, so it is important to find a space that will enable uninterrupted discussion for small groups as well as for the larger group. Several discussion sessions call for information to be recorded on newsprint. Bring nametags for participants to use. You might ask volunteers to provide refreshments and perhaps a light snack.

Do your best to hold the sessions in a room that is wheelchair accessible and make sure accessibility needs of the participants have been planned for in advance.

Involve the Group in Setting the Tone

The group should take responsibility for creating an environment that is welcoming and conducive to open dialogue. Bring to the group’s attention the importance of active listening, thoughtful responses, and mutual respect. Also, note that occasional silences are acceptable. Use people’s own experiences as a way to ground the discussion when it threatens to become too abstract and use theological questions to invite reflection when discussion turns to therapy.

Some people have a tendency to be more vocal than others. If a few people clearly dominate the conversation, you might need to open a space for those who have not had a chance to speak to do so if they wish.

As a discussion leader, it is important to establish a balance between too much control and too little direction. It will be important to be responsive in your leadership and draw people out, as well as keep the discussion on track.

We suggest that the group draft a set of ground rules at the beginning of the first session, post them on newsprint, and review them at the beginning of the second and third sessions. If all participants give input, everyone will be accountable to the group’s needs. Common ground rules include:

  • arrive on time and agree to attend all three sessions.
  • turn off pagers and cell phones during the program
  • make personal (“I”) statements—don’t speak for others
  • give full attention to the person who is speaking
  • use inclusive language

Prepare for the First Session

Ask participants to read Proverbs of Ashes in its entirety before the first session. Encourage them to keep a journal of their thoughts and reactions while reading the book, and throughout the course of the program. Let them know that they will be encouraged to bring in their own life experiences and spiritual beliefs to share with the group—as well as to reflect on the feelings catalyzed by the stories shared in Proverbs of Ashes. Remind participants to bring Proverbs of Ashes and their journals with them to the meetings.

Evaluate the Program

Two evaluation forms are provided in the last pages of this guide. Participant Evaluation Forms should be distributed at the end of the final session so participants can give feedback to group leaders. (Note that questions 7 and 8 on the form give leaders a chance to pose their own questions to participants.) Also, be sure to send Beacon Press your completed Leader Evaluation Form. We are striving to meet the program needs of UU congregations, and your continued feedback and suggestions will bring us a long way toward reaching our goal. We really want to hear from you!

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Session One: Sharing Our Religious Histories

Materials: Newsprint, markers, masking tape, chalice, candle, matches, nametags, UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition, Boston: UUA, 1993)

Welcome and Opening Check-In  (30 minutes)

Welcome participants and thank them for coming. Make sure that everyone knows where to find restrooms, water fountains, and other necessities. Encourage people to share their accessibility needs now or throughout the program. Introduce yourself and the program, offering time for questions. Circulate a sheet of paper so that people can write down contact information for your records.

Light the Chalice. Share reading #563 “A Person Will Worship Something” from the UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition) or another reading, hymn or songof your choosing. Allow a short time of silence before continuing.

Explain to participants that before you begin, you would like the group to establish ground rules. Tell them that ground rules are used to make a safe space for personal sharing. Ask a volunteer to record the group’s suggested guidelines on newsprint. If certain rules you find important are not mentioned, suggest them yourself (see “Getting Started” for common ground rules). Once the group has finished brainstorming ideas, check to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the ground rules. Ask participants if they are willing to enter into a covenant to abide by the rules they have created. If this is already a covenant group, or a group that meets regularly outside of this particular series, take this time to review your current ground rules and see if the group wishes to change them in any way.

Specifically discuss the role of personal sharing. Remind participants that inProverbs of Ashes the authors share personal material as a basis for exploring theological questions that matter to a wide range of people. In this same spirit, participants will be invited to share personal stories.  The purpose of such sharing is to deepen theological reflection on life experience. Participants should feel free to decide what they want to share, without compulsion.  If confidentiality is requested, it should be honored.  

Tell participants that every session will begin with a check-in. Ask that the sharing go around the circle, with people offering a brief description of how they are doing. If the program is scheduled right after a busy time of day you may want to suggest a theme for the check-in, to help people make the transition to group work. For this first session, ask that participants introduce themselves and state their expectations for the program. Make sure that everyone has a nametag. Possible ideas for check-in themes include:

  • describing an image from Proverbs of Ashes that particularly struck you;
  • mentioning one thing that motivated you to participate in this program; or
  • sharing a brief reflection from your journal.

Small Group Discussion: How have Christian Theologies Affected You? (15 minutes)

Separate into pairs. Allow each person about 7 minutes to share. In Proverbs of Ashes, the authors draw on their personal histories with Christian teachings. Whether we grew up as Christians or interacted with Christianity in the larger society, most of us have also been affected by social and/or religious cultures of Christianity. There is no one Christianity. Each of us has a particular history, understanding and emotional response to these teachings. With your partner, share ways in which Christianity has affected you.

Large Group Sharing: What Did We Hear? (20 minutes)

Invite participants back into the large group. What were the common themes that presented themselves in your small groups? What were the differences that emerged? In what ways were themes of violence or sufferingpresent in your discussion?

Time for Reflection and Prayer: (5 minutes)

Acknowledge that these subjects are difficult, and invite participants to enter together into a space of quiet reflection, meditation, or prayer. We suggest that you open this time with a reading, hymn or song of your choosingand then allow space for participants to give voice to their own prayers. You may wish to use one of the following readings from the UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition) : #488, #494, #496, #507, #510, #516, #524, and #609.

Break (5 minutes)

Invite participants to take 5 minutes to stretch, get refreshments, and use the bathrooms.

A Tapestry of Theologies, A Weave of Images (15 minutes)

Rebecca Parker writes of being raised with the understanding that “sacrifice is the way of life… To make sacrifice or to be sacrificed is virtuous and redemptive.” (Proverbs of Ashes, p. 25) Our religious histories have left us with legacies, positive and negative, that have affected how we view the world. What are some phrases or images from your childhood that have stayed with you? Examples include: The Golden Rule, Apples and The “Sin” of Eve, Noah’s Ark, The Kingdom of God, Loaves and Fishes, Children Should Be Seen and not Heard. Ask for a volunteer to record on newsprint images, phrases, or snapshots that come to peoples’ minds. Post sheets around the room as they become full.

Large Group Discussion: Reweaving Our Theologies (20 minutes)

Invite the group to look at the collected images and phrases. What still feels meaningful? Which are still affecting you on a subconscious level – even if you wish otherwise? In what ways do you think differently about these ideas now that you are an adult? How can we translate some of these concepts to make them positive parts of our lives?

Preparing for the Next Session (5 minutes)

During the next session, we will be exploring how theologies perpetuate violence and the idea of redemptive suffering. Encourage group members to continue journalling. Ask them to bring specific examples of how religious leaders and religious communities respond to violence in problematicways. Invite them to consider instances of violence from the news (such as: September 11, 2001; The War on Terrorism; The Columbine Shootings; or Matthew Shepherd’s murder), Proverbs of Ashes, or their own lives.

Closing Reading (5 minutes)

Thank the participants for their presence and participation. Close with reading #580 “The Task of the Religious Community” from the UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition) or with another reading or songof your choosing.

Extinguish the chalice. Ask for volunteers to help restore the room to its original state.

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Session Two: How Theologies Can Perpetuate Violence

Materials: Newsprint, markers, masking tape, chalice, candle, matches, UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition, Boston: UUA, 1993)

Chalice Lighting and Check-In (15 minutes)

To open this session, light the chalice and read #462 from the UUA Hymnal (Singing in the Living Tradition)oranother reading or song of your choosing. Allow a short time of silence before continuing.

After the reading or song, ask people to go around the circle and share briefly. Have people check-in quickly and if they wish, invite them to share a moment when they learned something from listening to one another during the last session.

Large Group Discussion: Religious Responses to Violence (45 minutes)

Rita Nakashima Brock writes, “Christianity is haunted by the ghost of Jesus. His death was an unjust act of violence that needed resolution. Such deaths haunt us. Rather than address the horror and anguish of his death, Christianity has tried to make it a triumph.” (Proverbs of Ashes, p. 60) Jesus’ story has been shaped by the history of responses that religions have made to his death. Likewise, many other victims of violence have found their own stories subsumed by religious justifications that turn violent realities into the stories of our salvation. Ask participants to share their reflections since the last session, examining how religious leaders and religious communities have responded to violence in problematicways. Encourage them to share their perspectives on how theologies perpetuate violence and the idea of redemptive suffering, using their examples from the news, Proverbs of Ashes, or their own lives.

Time for Reflection and Prayer: (5 minutes)

Acknowledge that these subjects are difficult, and invite participants to enter together into a space of quiet reflection, meditation, or prayer. We suggest that you open this time with a song orreading and then allow space for participants to give voice to their own prayers. You may wish to use one of the following readings from the UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition) : #488, #494, #496, #507, #510, #516, #524, and #609.

Break (5 minutes)

Invite participants to take 5 minutes to stretch, get refreshments, and use the bathrooms.

Writing Exercise (15 minutes)

Ask the group to spend the next 15 minutes writing in their journals. What issues of violence from the large group discussion particularly affected you? How do you wish religious leaders or communities had responded? What response might you make to that situation or how would you acknowledge the tragedy?

Sharing (15 minutes)

Break into groups of three or four and share a portion of your writings and reflections with one another.

Large Group Sharing (15 minutes)

Welcome participants back into the large group. Ask them to share something they learned about themselves or their personal beliefs from this exercise or from today’s session.  

Closing (5 minutes)

Close with reading #466 “Religion” from the UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition) or with another reading or song of your choosing.

Extinguish the chalice. Ask for volunteers to help restore the room to its original state.

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Session Three: Redemptive Suffering and the Reframing of Theology

Materials: Newsprint, markers, masking tape, chalice, candle, matches, UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition, Boston: UUA, 1993)

Chalice Lighting and Check-In (15 minutes)

To open this session, light the chalice and share reading #453 from the UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition) or another reading or songof your choosing. Allow a short time of silence before continuing.

After the reading or song, ask people to check-in brieflyand invite them to share a moment when they learned something from listening to one another during the last session.

Small Group Discussion: The Idea of Redemptive Suffering (15 minutes)

Regardless of our personal beliefs about sin, suffering, and salvation,  our society is shaped by the religious concept that good will come from the sacrifice of ourselves or others. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker describe what they have concluded about redemptive suffering. Violence does not redeem us. Religious communities do harm when they confuse suffering with a path to salvation.

Ask participants to break into groups of three or four. How did you respond to the concept of redemptive suffering? Which examples from the book spoke to you? How have you encountered the idea that suffering or violence must be accepted as part of love or redemption?

Large Group Discussion: (30 minutes)

Welcome members back into the large group. Invite them to share reflections that emerged in the small group discussion. Continue the conversation with the full group.

Time for Reflection and Prayer: (5 minutes)

Acknowledge that these subjects are difficult, and invite participants to enter together into a space of quiet reflection, meditation, or prayer. We suggest that you open this time with a reading, meditative song, or chantand then allow space for participants to give voice to their own prayers. You may choose one of the following readings from the UUA Hymnal (Singing the Living Tradition) or any other reading of your choosing: #488, #494, #496, #507, #510, #516, #524, and #609.

Break (5 minutes)

Invite participants to take 5 minutes to stretch, get refreshments, and use the bathrooms.

Large Group Discussion: The Search for What Saves Us (30 minutes)

Read the following quotation to the group. “Salvation begins with the courage of witnesses whose gaze is steady. Steady witnesses neither flee in horror to hide their eyes, nor console with sweet words, ‘It isn’t all that bad. Something good is intended by this.’ Violence is illuminated by insistent exposure. Steady witnesses end the hidden life of violence by bringing it to public attention. They help to restore souls fragmented by violence. They accompany the journey to healing.” (Proverbs of Ashes, p. 250)

Begin a conversation about the meaning of salvation. What do you believe about how the effects of violence and injustice can be repaired, resisted or transformed?  What does the idea of salvation as “restoration of souls fragmented by violence”call us to? What is the purpose of religious community?

Reflection on the Series (15 minutes)

Encourage participants to go around the circle and each offer a few sentences on their feelings about the program. What was particularly meaningful or helpful? What was difficult  What will you think about further?  Is there any feedback that they would offer for improvements to the program overall?

Use this time to ask people to fill out the participant evaluation form and leader evaluation form

Closing

Close with reading the final page of Proverbs of Ashes (p. 252).  Invite each participant to express a word of benediction or blessing.  End with a song if the group has enjoyed singing.

Extinguish the chalice. Thank participants for their sharing, enthusiasm, and participation. Ask for volunteers to help restore the room to its original state.

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For further reading:

We recommend the following Beacon books in addition to those listed in Proverbs of Ashes on p. 253-254:

  • Is God A White Racist? A Preamble to Black Theology, by William R. Jones
  • Next Time, She’ll Be Dead: Battering and How to Stop It, by Ann Jones
  • Dancing After the Whirlwind, L.J. Tessier
  • Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, by Rosemary Radford Ruether

For further group study:

We recommend the “Wallingford Study Guide to Proverbs of Ashes”, a six-week program especially suitable for Christian groups, that explores the theological issues raised in Proverbs of Ashes.  The Wallingford Guide is available through Starr King School for the Ministry’s website: www.sksm.edu.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank the following people for their support on this project:

Devorah Greenstein, Julia Watts Belser and Sofía Betancourt of Starr King School for the Ministry. Advisory Committee: Donna Bivens, Co-Director, Women’s Theological Center; Rev. Nancy Bowen, Clara Barton District Consultant; Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, Adult Programs Director, UUA Dept. of Religious Education; Jacqui James, Anti-Oppression Programs and Resources Director, UUA Dept. of Religious Education; Rev. Meg Riley, Director of UUA Washington Office, Dept. for Faith in Action

We are grateful for assistance from the New Hampshire Vermont, Pacific Northwest, Thomas Jefferson, Joseph Priestley, Pacific Central, and Northeast Districts and for support from the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock.

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BEACON PRESS DISCUSSION GUIDES

PARTICIPANT EVALUATION FORM

Name (optional):   

Date:

Group Leader:

Book Title:

Please indicate your evaluation of the following:

meeting space 

poor 

fair  

okay    

good   

great

pacing

poor 

fair  

okay 

good   

great

content

poor 

fair  

okay 

good   

great

overall

poor 

fair  

okay 

good   

great

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Do you think the sessions were: (Please check one)

____too long                       ____about right                       ____too short

How long would you like the sessions to be? ________________________________

2. Do you think there were: (Please check one)

____too many sessions     ____the right number of sessions   ____too few sessions

If you thought there were too many sessions, which one(s) would you leave out?

 

3.   If your large group broke into smaller groups for discussion, did this process work? Why or why not?

 

 

4. Is there anything that you would like to have talked about that was not included in the sessions? If so, what?

 

5. What activity(ies) did you especially like?  Why?

 

6. If there was an activity that you feel did not work in this context, can you tell us which activity and why?

 

7.  Question:

 

 

8. Question:

 

 

9. Please rate your group leader’s skills in leading the session(s): (Circle one)

Excellent               Good               Average                       Fair                  Poor

10. What suggestions would you offer to the group leader to improve the way the group is conducted?

 

    

Thank you for taking the time to give us your feedback!

Please return this form to:

Helene Atwan, Director
Beacon Press
25 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02108-2800


BEACON PRESS DISCUSSION GUIDES

LEADER EVALUATION FORM

Name:   

Date:

UU Society:  

District:

Book Title:

1. Do you and/or your participants think the sessions were: (Please check one)

____too long                       ____about right                       ____too short

How long would you like the sessions to be? ________________________________

2. Do you think that there were: (Please check one)

____too many sessions     ____the right number of sessions   ____too few sessions

If you thought there were too many sessions, which ones would you leave out?

 

 

3. If your large group broke into smaller groups for discussion, did this process work? Why or why not?

 

  

4. Is there anything that you would like to have talked about that was not included in the sessions? If so, what?

 

5. What activity(ies) did you especially like and why?

 

 

6. If there was an activity that you feel did not work in this context, can you tell us which activity and why?

 

 

7. Do you think the discussion guides will help to promote a stronger sense of community in your congregation? Why or why not?     

 

 

8. Can you suggest other books or subjects that might work in this context?

 

 

9.   If you changed the format, please describe the changes you made and your reason for making them.

 

 

Thank you for taking the time to give us your feedback!

Please return this form to:

Helene Atwan, Director
Beacon Press
25 Beacon Street
Boston, MA 02108-2800

 
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