This past week there has been an uprising of people taking to the streets to protest systemic-racism. The chronic weaponization of racism is being confronted and challenged by thousands of protestors in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery who would have turned 26 last month, and Breonna Taylor, who would have turned 27 last Thursday. There are Protests across the country condemning police brutality and centuries of racial injustice. It is good to remember that most of the people coming out to protest police brutality around the country HAVE been peaceful. I truly hope and pray that 2020 will finally be a turning point in making substantive positive social change. If the sold-out copies of books on White Privilege or how to be anti-racist are any indication, it’s a good trajectory, IF we have the will to sustain it. Our congregation will be embarking on another white privilege study soon. We are still working out the details. As we do so we also need to remember to stay grounded in a healthy spiritual rhythm of Social Justice activism & contemplation. Some people think that there is a dualistic split between “contemplatives in the world and activists” like those who identify with Martha as a doer Or deep Contemplative listener like Mary”. But Contemplation and social justice activism are parts of an organic whole.
A healthy rhythm of fighting for social justice combined with contemplation can help prevent compassion fatigue and burnout. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, and the one who called for a National Day of Lament for the more than 100,000 dead in this country from COVID19, speaks to this rhythm:
Action without reflection can easily become barren and even bitter. Without the space for self-examination and the capacity for rejuvenation, the danger of exhaustion and despair is too great…. Contemplation confronts us with the questions of our identity and power. Who are we? To whom do we belong? Is there a power that is greater than ours?… Our drivenness must give way to peacefulness and our anxiety to joy…. Strategy grows into trust, success into obedience, planning into prayer.
This week there has also been a concerted effort to amplify the voices and work of Black and Brown people who are already in the trenches doing social justice work. I want to offer two quotes of two African American Women who are in the theological and social justice public square – they offer different perspectives of a life infused with both social justice and contemplation. Austin Channing Brown is a leading new voice on racial justice, and wrote the bestselling book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. She is committed to racial justice and helping people who want to be on the journey toward anti-racism.
What if instead of longing for ease, we were made for more – made to advocate, made to dig in, made to speak out, made for complexity, made for this moment? What if we believed so deeply in our own capacity to rise to this occasion that getting to work wasn’t a tiring chore, but a life-giving opportunity to invest in something larger than ourselves?
But how do we get to the point where it isn’t a chore, but where it is life-giving and we have capacity. We are in the last week of a worship series based on a book written by Christine Valters Paintner: Earth, Our Original Monastery. In the book, Christine lays out spiritual practices for meeting God in the contemplative life by becoming rooted and grounded in the gifts of creation.
Let’s listen in to another African American woman. TRICIA HERSEY is a Community Healer and activist, Performance Artist, and Theologian. Her interests include black liberation theology, womanist theology, somatics, healing trauma and reparations. You will find it interesting to know that she is also the Founder of The Nap Ministry in Atlanta. She calls herself the Nap Bishop and Advocates for rest as a form of resistance.
Resist, protest, buy from black businesses, educate yourself on racism, donate to organizations, be an ally – all good advice. But what if I told you, nap? Lie down. Close your eyes. Sleep.
In a recent interview someone asked her: Protesting, demonstrating, posting on social media to raise awareness is extremely important. But how important is REST right now?
Tricia responds: I love all those things and have done all those things. But right now rest is critical because it’s counterintuitive and counter-narrative to see slowing down, napping and rest as a key to our movement for black liberation. Rest is a form of resistance because it disrupts, pushes back against capitalism and white supremacy. It allows space for healing, for invention, for us to be more human. It helps us imagine a new world that’s liberated, full of justice, that’s a foundation for us to really, truly live our lives. I was inspired by the idea for the Nap Ministry when I was in divinity school in 2013. A lot of the lynchings were back-to-back. I was a graduate student in a predominately white institution. Black Lives Matter was heating up, and I was exhausted from living as a black woman in America. All of those things were coming at me at once, and I just decided to rest. I decided to take naps wherever I could. I was researching black liberation theology, somatics, cultural trauma. I was doing a lot of research around slavery and looking at the historic documents around the commodification of black people in America. And I made a connection between rest and resistance. That’s how “The Nap Ministry” got started. It’s rest; it’s resistance; it’s reparations; you can lay down; you’ve done enough; this is a connection to our ancestors; this is a pushback against capitalism. People would stare at me in wonder and say, wow, I’ve never thought of that, but yes, I’m exhausted. I’m tired. I would love to lay down. This is a racial and social justice issue. Sleep deprivation is a justice issue because it’s been traced from all the way back during slavery. Black people were human machines. Grind culture continues today to try and attempt to make us all human machines and not to see the divinity of who we really are. And so rest is disrupting that history, and it’s allowing us to connect to our deepest selves. I love to reimagine rest outside of a capitalist and colonized system. I love to think of rest as something that’s subversive and inventive – closing your eyes for 10 minutes, daydreaming, meditating, praying. So we can find rest wherever we are because wherever our bodies are, we can find liberation because our body is a site of liberation. “Rest is a spiritual practice and sleep is prayer.”
The prophets provide many accounts of the ways in which God sustained them through creation when they were tired, struggling, afraid, and feeling threatened by the corrupt politicians of their day. One of those prophets is Elijah. During the drought that Elijah predicted, God sent him to a hidden ravine near the Jordan River to hide from the disgruntled king who wanted to kill the messenger. While he was in that ravine, God sent ravens to bring him food. Later, after Elijah angered Jezebel by defeating the prophets of Ba’al, calling down fire from heaven, he was in discouraged, in deep despair, including suicidal thoughts. Again he was sustained again by God through the angels who drew him far away from the public scene and tended him under the broom tree. As he dozed, an angel came to him and said “Wake up, and have something to eat and drink.” When Elijah opened his eyes, there was cake and water. God first ministered to Elijah’s physical needs. Sometimes the most spiritual thing a person can do is get enough rest and replenishment. He ate and drank, and then took another nap. Apparently, one nap and a meal wasn’t enough. The angel returned and woke Elijah again to eat and drink, saying Elijah would need his strength. God leads him through a time of reflection on a 200 mile, 40 day trip through the wilderness as the prophet recovers from his spiritual depression. Eventually, Elijah comes to the sacred mountain of Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. While Elijah sat in the cave, a voice asked,
“What are you doing here, Elijah?”
“The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.
After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. What are you doing here Elijah?”
In that moment, in that question, In that gentle whisper of God, Elijah was able to discerned the specifics of his prophetic vision and what he was to do next. It turns out that Contemplatives make good activists. Their activity becomes focused, powerful, sustained.
Listen to these words from the last chapter of the book “Earth: Our Original Monastery”. (p.109)
In the opening pages of Being Still: Reflections on an Ancient Mystical Tradition, Orthodox theologian Jean-Yves Leloup describes a young philosopher who comes to Fr. Seraphim to learn about prayer of the heart. Fr. Seraphim says that before he teaches him this way of prayer, he must learn to meditate like a mountain. He goes to learn stability of posture and grounding from the mountain, the weight of presence, and the experience of calmness and stability. He enters into the timeless time of mountains and experienced eternity within and around him while also learning the grace of the seasons.
Next Fr. Seraphim sent him to learn how to meditate like a poppy taking his mountain wisdom with him. From the poppy he learns to turn himself toward the light and to orient his meditation practice from his inner depths toward radiance. The poppy also teaches him the ability to bend with the wind and the finitude of our days as the blossom began to wither.
He is then sent to the ocean to learn the wisdom of ebbing and flowing. He learns to synchronize his breath with the “great breathing rhythm of the waves.”
Fr. Seraphim finally has him learn to pray like a bird saying that the Prophet Isaiah describes meditation as the cry of an animal like a roaring lion or the song of a dove. The bird was to teach him how to sing continuously, repeating the name of God in his heart without ceasing.
Each time you go for a walk, see if you can begin with a sense that you are stepping into a landscape that is animate and alive, that is participating in the great unfolding of a liturgy of praise. Then let your body join in with this ongoing hymn, know it as intimate with this already ongoing song.
All elements of creation participate in this primordial scripture, liturgy, sainthood, spiritual direction, and sanctuary spaces offering wisdom to us with each turn.
Christine quotes Andrew Harvey in the book: The rhythms of earth that ignore us save us in the end. Their presence awakens silence in us; they refresh our courage with the purity of their detachment. It is Nature’s sense of holy indifference. Being among trees hundreds of years old or stones millions of years old -or by the ocean that has been crashing to the shore since the dawn of creation – my problems become small and less significant. I am able to breathe more deeply and remember a God who is vast and whose horizons extend far beyond limited knowing and imagination.
It is easy to become overwhelmed by what is happening in life, to feel powerless, to despair. That is when we need to pay attention to leading a life balanced with action and Contemplation – staying grounded.
Christine closes the last chapter with a spiritual practice of taking one of Wendell Berry’s poems entitled – When I despair. I’ve asked Laura Giddings to read this aloud for us.
Wendell Berry: When I despair
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life
and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.
Christine suggests writing the words, When I despair…and write whatever comes to mind. She suggests if you get stuck, to write those three words again… When I despair…
When you finish, write the last line of the poem or pray it out loud –
For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.
May we practice the spiritual rhythm of rest and contemplation as we discern the next steps to God’s call to social justice activism.