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Contemplation in a Status Quo World

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Katy Stenta is curating a series called “Worship Outside the Box” that looks at the elements of worship in new ways and contexts. Each post will focus on one particular part of worship, providing new insights about how we can gather to worship God. Today’s post serves as the prayers of the people. What are the ways you worship God in your own community? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Mary Beene

Yesterday was a very busy day. I had several projects with looming deadlines and an evening gathering at my office. At 8:30 am I still had parts and pieces of an unfinished DIY bookshelf scattered across the office floor and little bits of Styrofoam packing stuck to every surface in the room. So I settled into my still cold room, sat on the hard floor screwdriver in hand, and finished the bookcase. Then I gathered my cleaning supplies, ran the vacuum and by 10:30 am everything was ready for the night’s event.

That’s when I sat on the couch in the corner of the now cozy office and admired my handiwork. I read a psalm and pondered the Lord’s judgment and the Earth’s joy. And then I sat for a few minutes more. Of course, the urgency of the day fell upon my spirit once my hands and mind were free to wander. I almost jumped up to begin the next phase of the day’s work.

But something stilled me, and I sat for many minutes more in silence, admiring the room, marveling at how God has guided me and uplifted me as I started my own spiritual direction practice, and thanking the Spirit for this blissful moment of quiet before the next thing.

When was the last time you let yourself take a moment of stillness in the midst of a busy day and a busy life? We are taught to admire people who rush through the day, accomplishing so much more than seems humanly possible. If we are wage workers, we know that there is no grace from our employers if we are caught staring into space, even if we know that in our hearts we are glorifying God.

Sometimes I even deny myself stillness at the end of a long day. I try to get in that last bit of housework, watch that program everyone is watching, catch up on Facebook, or even play a game on my phone. If I sit there doing “nothing” someone is bound to come and fill that time for me; but no one bothers me if I am still “busy” with anything that looks demanding.

As a spiritual director I teach contemplative prayer. And it is very important, because quieting our minds and opening our hearts to God is a skill that must be learned. It sounds like it should be simple, but even if I close my eyes right now, I can feel the urge well up to run in circles.

I recently learned of a Presbyterian church in Colorado that started an experiment 20 years ago to do contemplative/centering prayer as a part of their everyday church life. Now, two decades later, spiritual practices are a part of every dimension of the congregation’s life: time for deep prayer in worship, session meetings, Bible study, fellowship and mission. It wasn’t an overnight transformation, but it grew organically from the mustard seed of an experiment: what would happen if we took time for stillness?

This morning my office is in a shambles again. It’s not just the glasses and plates that need washing, the regular remains of a lovely party. Unfortunately, one leg of my cute but ancient loveseat choose last night to shatter and crash my poor guests to the floor.

Though I smiled, apologized for the unexpected dumping, and assured everyone that it was no big deal, my heart sank and my mind started racing again. I really love that couch, though it looks this morning like last night was its final party. It helped make the office cozy. And, of course, there’s no money in the budget to replace it.

After the guests left, I jumped into action. The computer came out – how much would it cost to replace a loveseat; is there any money in the bank, are there local stores I can visit in the morning, is there any chance at all there’s a youtube video on fixing ancient couch legs that are probably well past the “fixing” stage?

But this morning I realize there’s one thing I need to do before I rush into action, before the dishes are cleared, the floor is swept again, and the arduous process of replacing the loveseat begins. I am going to sit in the corner of my still cozy office, read a psalm, ponder the wonder of God’s grace and stay for as long as the Lord can hold me fast in a strong embrace. But I suppose today I’ll do it from a chair.


Mary Beene is a spiritual director, retreat leader and facilitator in Savannah, GA for Openings: Let the Spirit In (www.letthespiritin.com). She has her Masters in Public Administration from American University, her M.Div. from Boston University and is a graduate of the Shalem Institute’s Spiritual Direction Program. Her special interests include contemplative discernment for individuals and congregations and writing spiritual memoir as a tool for resiliency.

A Confession for This Moment

by Brandon Frick

“the church writes confessions of faith when it faces a situation of life or a situation of death so urgent that it cannot remain silent but must speak, even at the cost of its own security, popularity, and success.”

– “Confessional Nature of the Church Report, I.B.,” PC(USA) Book of Confessions

It began almost a year ago.

In May of 2016, I submitted an article to the Presbyterian Outlook about the promise and possibilities of a Reformed confession of faith for the 21st century. As I surveyed the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Confessions, replete with helpful theological language, there was a nagging feeling that those confessions and statements seemed to be speaking past our current cultural moment. I didn’t realize it then, but what I was struggling with was how the church could reverse the disintegration of communal bonds in the midst of what has since been defined as the “post-truth” era – an era in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In short, I was plagued by this question: How could we proclaim Jesus as Truth in the midst of a world that, like Pilate, could look right at it and ask “What is truth?”

As election season wore on (and wore everyone out), I grew to believe ever more strongly that the church needed to speak a word of hope in the midst of cynicism and despair. As I watched my congregants, yellow-dog Democrats, Tea-Party Republicans, and everyone in between, get ground up in the gears of the politics of antagonism, it became clear they needed a word of renewal. Then, the morning after the election, friends who felt, too, the election as a rejection of their right to belong and congregants who needed their church reached out en masse.

As I sat in our sanctuary, wrestling with the pain that so many — conservative and liberal — were voicing, I asked God the questions that would ultimately lead to the composition of the Sarasota Statement: “God, what am I supposed to do? As a pastor, what is my responsibility in all this?” The answer was revealed over the course of a day: it was time to put my money where my mouth was. If I really believed all the things I claimed in that article, then we needed a confession to address the world and the church and claim our hope in God for this particular moment.

So, there was the answer, all I had to do was get a team of people together to write a confession. Funny thing though: no one has written Confession-writing for Dummies. I needed help, so I reached out to Glen Bell, who I had recently gotten to know in the Pastoral Development Seminar hosted by the saints at First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, FL. Several weeks later, both NEXT Church and the Presbyterian Foundation pledged their support to the endeavor.

Through Glen and Jessica Tate’s hard work, a team (that I am now privileged to count as friends, and from whom you’ll be hearing this month) was put together. We began corresponding over the intervening weeks, sharing resources and ideas, and then met in January at First Pres Sarasota for a little over a day of intensive work.  What began there, and was shaped over ensuing weeks by our group (thank God for the internet!), has become a document that I am honored to have had a part in crafting.

In the trust, grief, and commitment described in the Sarasota Statement, I take great hope for myself, the church, and the world, and I pray others do as well. What I did not expect is the degree to which I find hope in the process of actually composing the Statement and the friendships that have been formed there. Eight people who love God and the church, but who come from different contexts and perceive the world differently, gathered together to hash through some massive theological and cultural questions, and now together, we lift our voices to witness to Jesus Christ as the Redeemer and Reconciler of all things. What a testimony to God’s goodness and fidelity in a world where we told consensus is impossible!

This month, the NEXT Church blog will feature reflections from the team on the Statement and the writing process. I hope you’ll enjoy hearing from them over the month of April; I know I will.


Brandon Frick is Associate Pastor for Adult Education, Small Groups, and Young Adults at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, MD. He is married to Aaryn and has played in almost every sandbox around the Chesapeake Bay with his two boys. 

“Spirit in the Dark” Examines the Boundaries of Religious Life

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Derrick McQueen

The book that is providing theological perspective and inspiration for me these days is Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics by Josef Sorett. It is a work that examines the African-American cultural movements and their artistic offspring. From the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920’s through the Black Arts movement, Dr. Sorett examines the pervasive effect religion plays on these commonly seen as secular literary visions. This work is exciting because it puts religion in conversation with the secular and in doing so allows the church/religion to erase the divide between what is inside and what is outside of the church walls, or the boundaries of religious life.

Spirit in the Dark does not attempt to answer the question, “How does the church make itself relevant in the secular world?” It lays claim to the ways in which the division between the sacred and the secular is an artificial one. In fact, it sees the religious as an integral ingredient in the African-American literary tradition.

Church book study group leaders will find this book extremely helpful in training the eyes and ears to the religious undercurrents in the secular literary tradition. As Dr. Sorett’s work deals with the African-American experience, the culminating lessons are also applicable or at least adaptable for many different communities. It is just that in Spirit in the Dark, Sorett’s impressive research makes clear that the African-American experience is one that able to be clearly defined and claimed as such in this rich tapestry of literary tradition and can serve as a model to other communities.

Specifically, it frees the preacher up to understand that the literary resource of the African-American literary tradition is ripe for bringing in texts to be in conversation with the Bible and the community. It also provides a way for preachers and pastors to parse culture without giving in to the demand to “do something new to fill the pews” by watering down the theological foundations upon which their churches and communities are built. This is an important book and readers will definitely find their own jewels within.


Rev. Derrick McQueen, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Director for The Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University. He is also serving as pastor to St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem, N.Y., and is an adjunct professor of Worship and Preaching at Lancaster Theological Seminary. Derrick has been actively involved in work for LGBTQ inclusion in churches and society, facilitating dialogues and serving on the boards of such organizations as Presbyterian Welcome, That All May Freely Serve, More Light Presbyterians and Auburn Seminary. Recently he served as the Moderator of the Presbytery of New York City.

Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman “Sheds a Little Light”

by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Eighty years ago (1937) this month, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. published a poem by the Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American Baptist minister, professor of theology, and dean of the chapel at Howard University. The title of the poem was “O God, I Need Thee.” Thurman poetically describes our need of God’s sense for time, order, and future.

This month, the NEXT Church blog will help us all investigate God’s timing, order, and future by recommending and reviewing books that shed a little light on what is happening all around and within us in these seemingly chaotic days of 2017. The inspiration for this phrase, “shed a little light,” comes from James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light.” You can watch a video of it being performed by the Lowcountry SC Voices in Columbia here.

Lent, if nothing else, is a time for reflection on what has been and living toward what is possible with God’s help. We die to our old selves as we pray to rise to newness of life in fullest form.

Thurman published Meditations of the Heart in 1953, the second in a volume of meditations that were originally written for personal and congregational use at Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco where he served as co-pastor with Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister, and professor of philosophy from 1944-1953. Both were deeply concerned about building bridges of understanding among varied races, cultures, and faiths.

The purpose of these meditations is, as Thurman puts it, “to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.” The meditations in this 210-page book are chock full of insight, centering prayer, and nourishment for the journey. For me, all three are needed in these days as they were for his congregation in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Meditations are the type of sustenance that fed civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. who was, in many ways, mentored by Thurman.

Mentoring voices from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond will follow this post throughout the coming weeks, each from various walks of life and ministry contexts including those leading theological schools, congregations, presbyteries, the General Assembly, and non-profit organizations. Each will identify their context for ministry and call, a book they recommend, what the book is about, and why they believe it is critical reading today. My prayer is that these will become timely and descriptive “meditations of the heart,” so to speak, for a holy pilgrimage into God’s imagined future: the NEXT Church.

My sincere hope is that these posts will also provide a foundational backdrop for the conversations many of us will be having at the 2017 National Gathering on Well-Being in a Thirsty World.


I am Lee Hinson-Hasty and my call to ministry centers on vocation of leaders in the church and the world. I am always curious about how we find what Thomas Merton described as “our true selves.” Discerning vocation is, I believe, a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Vocation discerned becomes educational and, ultimately, economic in a particular social context. As a resource and advocate for theological education in the PC(USA) for more than a decade, I find my current call as Senior Director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation provides me the best opportunity I know to invite and embolden others to used their gifts to glorify God in ways that will empower leaders of Christ’s Church by supporting future ministers. I pray regularly with James Taylor and others that we will all “Recognize there are ties between us… ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood. …. We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.”

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 4

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the conclusion of a four part series. Read part 1 herepart 2 here, and part 3 here

By Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Making the Thurman Connections

Thurman had the uncanny and prophetic ability to make a connection between the silence and scrutiny of one’s inner life with the work for social justice. He encouraged Dr. King and other organizers of the Movement to utilize contemplative practices. In particular, Thurman stressed the importance for marchers to examine their inward journeys and to use nonviolent responses to what was often very violent confrontation.

In light of this, Lerita and Jacquelyn designed a workshop to share with participants the social advocacy of Howard Thurman through group reading and reflections of excerpts from lectures, sermons, or meditations by Thurman. Participants engaged in reflections on their own ways of using the contemplative to prepare themselves spiritually for their call to engage in the work of non-violent and transformative responses to racial oppression.

The focus on Howard Thurman in this workshop was no coincidence. Clearly, his social justice gospel continues to serve as both an unofficial spiritual director for the Civil Rights Movement of those who were and continue to be marginalized or disinherited. Thurman was on the fringe even in doing what he felt called to do; yet, his “voice” was heard and continues to be heard throughout the world.


 

Lerita Coleman BrownLerita Coleman Brown, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology and a spiritual director. Brown is a graduate of the Shalem Institute. She lives in Georgia, USA, and writes and promotes contemplative spirituality in everyday life.

Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 3

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a four part series. Read part 1 here, and part 2 here

By Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Jacquelyn:  “Social Justice as a Lived Experience/ The Contemplative as a Learned Process”

Memories of my introduction to social justice activism begin with the Civil Rights/Racial Justice Movement of the 60s that was based in the African American church. To a large extent, this movement was an outgrowth of that very same source to which I link my involvement with the contemplative.

It was my father, Jack Smith, Jr., who exposed me to the movement and to a key community-based organization, the NAACP Youth Division, which taught me about the “contemplative in action.” The leaders in the organization did this by training and preparing us for the picketing, demonstrations, marches, and other acts of nonviolent resistance to forced segregation and unequal access to resources that were available to white people; e.g., schools, hotels/motels, restaurants, housing, employment in department stores (especially women’s shops), and more.

This took place several years before the huge cross-burning in front of the house, located at the end of a predominantly white neighborhood; we were purchasing it through a white realtor. The incident occurred the week before our family and that of a family friend were to have moved into our “new to us” duplex that was located at the end of a street in an all-white neighborhood.

Many years later, I “met” Howard Thurman in my search for a theology with which I felt “at home”—one which offered me both the freedom to connect with another dimension of my spiritual self and do so within the context of myself as an African American woman—tapping my inner and outer existence. I had found many books that supported my search for clarity around my theology and spirituality, but never with racial reflections of myself. The images were of European/White Americans or people from the Eastern religions. This included Joel Goldsmith, Thomas Merton, and others.

While addressing one aspect of my being, this was not sufficient for me as one who had become disillusioned with institutional religion after encountering subtle and stinging acts of racism in the college church I attended during my undergraduate years.

When I discovered Thurman, it was like the situation for the woman with the issue of blood. I found a theologian, who chose to engage in work that would speak to me as an African American woman on my quest for centeredness through a contemplative experience as a path to inner peace, joy, and power. He wrote about this desire—especially for oppressed people—in Jesus and the Disinherited, which became a cherished favorite of Dr. King, and one that he carried whenever he marched.

In the next blog, we will make the connections….


 

Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 2

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the second in a four part series. Read part 1 here!

By Lerita Coleman Brown

Lerita:  “Social Injustices Revealed”

I grew up in Pasadena, California, in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the vestiges of social injustice not quite as visible as they were in the South. I remember our father setting us down as young children to have the “race conversation” as we prepared for a family visit to Arkansas. He explained that things were different “down there,” and we would see signs for “Colored” and “White Only” at restrooms, restaurants, and neighborhood pools. Racism in California more subtly reared its ugly head with neighborhood covenants barring Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and sometimes Jews from purchasing homes. I had not yet learned about the loss of homes and livelihoods as Japanese “citizens” were carted off and sent to internment camps during World War II.

My first clear taste of racial injustice occurred as a Black college student entering as a member of the first wave of Black students desegregating University of California campuses in the early 1970’s. Although I attended a legally mandated desegregated high school with Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Latinos, the result of Brown vs. Board of Education decision and subsequent suit, the White students and professors at UC Santa Cruz appeared different than the ones I encountered at John Muir High School. They frequently acted as if I were an alien from another planet and many believed that I was “let in” as an Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) student at University of California, Santa Cruz. I was very aware that I entered through the regular admissions process and with a California State Scholarship.

The university setting, however, provided an opportunity for me to cross paths with Jan Willis, a then young assistant professor of religion and also African American. A budding Tibetan Buddhist scholar, she taught my roommate and me how to meditate. This simple act of learning about cultivating a divine inner connection altered my life forever.

Since that time, I have allowed messages emerging from my contemplative practices of silence and stillness to guide me as I choose to engage the inner and the outer, or contemplative responses (the inner) with necessary external action (the outer), to address social injustice.

I have been most intrigued with Howard Thurman’s notion of “inner authority,” the idea that each individual has some power over what he or she allows into one’s inner sanctum. Thurman was reminded in his many contemplative moments, and communicates in his sermons and writings, the same truth as Jesus did—that each of us is created by God, is a child of God, and that is what we must always carry in our hearts.

In the next blog, your will read Jacquelyn’s story….


Lerita Coleman Brown

Lerita Coleman Brown, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology and a spiritual director. Brown is a graduate of the Shalem Institute. She lives in Georgia, USA, and writes and promotes contemplative spirituality in everyday life.

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative Part 1

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Behold the miracle!  … Love loves; this is its nature.  But this does not mean love is blind, naive, or pretentious.  It does mean that love holds its object securely in its grasp, calling all that it sees by is true name but surrounding all with a wisdom born both of its passion and its understanding.  …  Such an experience is so fundamental in quality that an individual knows that what is happening to him [or her] can outlast all things without itself being dissipated or lost.

~Howard Thurman

Introduction

We came together, two African American women who are also members of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network (International), to bring to the conversation about the contemplative and emerging wisdom a discussion on Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. He was an African American theologian and mystic. Reared in an African American Baptist Church, he was co-founder of the first interfaith, racially and economically integrated church in the U.S. Moreover, he was spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he played a critical role as a “behind the scenes” leader in the development of an alternative to violence in the dismantling of racial injustice in America—through the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

In coming together to develop this workshop, Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks found a way to continue a journey of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network’s recently published book of essays, Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color (March 2014).

All too often, in mainstream secular and sacred education experiences, where implicit and explicit racism may not always be recognized for what they are, there is a conspicuous absence and/or underrepresentation of the presence of African American people in the stories that are used as images, tell the stories, highlight the roles and contributions almost exclusively of those representing the dominant culture to present the teachings. There is, thus, little likelihood that there will be at the intersection evidence of matters of race, racism, or racial justice, and this includes the contemplative experience.

With that in mind, conference facilitators Brown and Smith-Crooks made a conscious decision to both create space for conversation about the intersection of racial justice and the contemplative, and to also focus on a less familiar spiritual leader, who played a pivotal role in a movement that was felt around the world. This was first done in the workshop entitled, “Howard Thurman: Contemplative Spiritual Advisor and Prophet for Civil Rights.”

In doing so, it was deemed necessary to heed an African proverb, “Beware of the naked man/woman who comes bringing you clothes.” By reflecting on our own personal journeys of the socio-cultural, racial, and spiritual experiences at the intersection, we shared a glimpse the ties (of stories of race, racism, and the contemplative) that bind us even as we grew up hundreds of miles apart.

In the next blog post, you will read Lerita’s story….


 

Lerita Coleman BrownLerita Coleman Brown, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology and a spiritual director. Brown is a graduate of the Shalem Institute. She lives in Georgia, USA, and writes and promotes contemplative spirituality in everyday life.

Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.

Out of Stillness and Silence

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Vikki Montgomery

Author Pico Iyer avoids using the word God, claims no particular religion, and doesn’t speak of himself as a spiritual person. Still he has something important to say to Christians striving to be “contemplatives in action.”

In an On Being conversation with host Krista Tippett, we learn that Iyer was born into a family of East Indian professors at Oxford University. When the family relocated to California, Iyer attended school in England from age nine through university. By his thirties, he said he had racked up one million frequent-flier miles in a single U.S. airline.

He confesses, “Anyone who travels knows that you’re not really doing so in order to get around—you’re travelling in order to be moved. … So I realized I have a lot of movement in my life, but not maybe enough stillness.”

At the advice of a friend, after losing his family home to fire, he went on retreat at a Benedictine hermitage in Big Sur. At first he felt guilty for leaving his work and his family. “And as soon as I arrived in that place,” he says. “I realized that none of that mattered and that, really, by being here, I would have so much more to offer my mother and my friends and my bosses.”

In the last 24 years, he has visited the hermitage more than 70 times. “Sometimes, people like me have to take conscious measures to step into the stillness and silence and be reminded of how it washes us clean,” he explains.

Tippett reminds him of a line that he wrote, “[T]he point of gathering stillness is not to enrich the sanctuary or the mountaintop, but to bring that calm into the motion, the commotion of the world.”

Soon, Iyer launches into a description of spirituality and religion:

Spirituality is … the story of our passionate affair with what is deepest inside us and with the candle that’s always flickering inside us and sometimes almost seems to go out and sometimes blazes. And religion is the community, the framework, the tradition, all the other people into which we bring what we find in solitude.

Iyer then quotes his long-time friend, the Dalai Lama, saying “[T]he most important thing without which we can’t live is kindness. We need that to survive. … [K]indness is water, religion is like tea. … It’s a great luxury. It increases the savor of life. It’s wonderful if you have it. But you can survive without tea, you can’t survive without water.”

Circling back to religion, Iyer says, “And so everyday kindness and responsibility is the starting block for every life. … [We need to] ground ourselves in the people around us before we start thinking about our texts and our notions of the absolute.”

Hold the doctrines. Hold the theology. Just share everyday kindness.

“Our outer lives are only as good as our inner lives. So to neglect our inner lives is to incapacitate our outer lives. We don’t have so much to give to other people or the world or our job or our kids,” he cautions.

My takeaway from this conversation is that even if we can’t go on retreat, we can enter a contemplative space: where we live, perhaps where we work—and definitely where we worship.

How can injustice continue if we, alone and in community, allow stillness and silence to do its work in us?


Vikki Montgomery

Vikki Montgomery is a contemplative, communications consultant, writer, and educator. Her greatest joy is being a mother and grandmother. Her spiritual mentor confirmed her intuition that silence is the first language of God.

For what shall I pray?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Martha L. Wharton

I live in Baltimore, Maryland, and I have been thinking about the recent situation here. The grief and violence have troubled my African American mind and spirit. I am a northerner transplanted below the Mason-Dixon Line, a middle-class woman with no involvement in the criminal justice system, residing in a city where a significant minority of the men and women have been in some way engaged with the local police or probation services. I am a mother raising a bright black girl in a city where so many of her classmates have little or no choice in the public educational lottery. As one who believes God is everywhere, always, and that we have the capacity to recognize Heaven around us every day, for what shall I pray?

At heart, I am an optimist. Nevertheless, in these days of mounting trouble in urban, suburban, and rural communities, I struggle to find the silver lining in the threatening clouds that hang just above my city’s skyline. I listen to the local leaders for the wisdom they may bring to our current crises. There, I find little that actually enlightens and much that sounds like a new mix of the pre-trouble talk. No help there. I look to state and national leaders and hope for real change, soon. Again, I realize that change requires courage and a deep willingness to take political and career risks. When the goal is higher office, I can’t expect that politicians will deploy their power and privilege for the sake of the unjustly disenfranchised whose votes cannot be counted on in the next big election.

Always looking up, though, I turn to the least likely book in the Bible—Ecclesiastes—and find a reason to renew my hope. I also observed the following example of wisdom under the sun—it impressed me greatly:

There was a small town with only a few residents. A mighty king came against it, surrounded it, and waged a terrible war against it. Now there lived in that town a poor but wise man who saved everyone by his wisdom. But no one remembered that poor man. So I thought, Wisdom is better than might, but the wisdom of commoners is despised and their words aren’t heeded. The calm words of the wise are better heeded than the racket caused by a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one incompetent person destroys much good” (Ecc. 9:13-18, Common English Bible).

My hope and my answers are bound up in the Word, in this pithy parable about a town, a king, and a forgotten commoner. Poverty, joblessness, poor education, absent security, and high crime are absolute rulers of the bodies and minds of many who live surrounded by them day after day. They wage “terrible war” against the spirit and attempt mightily to bend the human will to corrupt values. When one rises from among those living under siege, makes a way out of no way, and overcomes the warring hegemony, that one is celebrated and a local park is re-named for the Wise One, for “wisdom is better than might.” Good things do rise from the ordinary folk.

But then, when the matter is no longer newsworthy, the Wise One is forgotten, the old battle fades in memory, and plans to make change are lost in the shuffle. Nonetheless, the next verse offers wisdom from whence emanates my prayer: “The calm words of the wise are better heeded than the racket caused by a ruler among fools” (Ecc. 9:17).  I have resolved to pray for the “calm words of the wise,” that no incompetent action will destroy the good things that might come of troubled beginnings (Ecc. 9:18).

This I will pray:

Bringer of Light and Wisdom, Creator of Opportunity, and Wind of Wise Change, You are the God in whom we place our trust and our hope.

God, our cities, suburbs, and rural communities are troubled with crime, drugs, poverty, and joblessness. Your people who reside in challenged and compromised communities lead lives that afford them few legitimate and safe choices. They see the lives of those who live in more prosperous communities and wonder, “Why?”  “Why must my family, neighbors, friends, and I live as if we are at war with local government, the police, the bodega owners, and social service agencies that are willing to locate on our streets?” “Why must we live in struggle, when those who live across town seem to live in communities of plenty?” God, You know the questions of those who struggle are heard, but not heeded. Their questions are fair, but little or no justice seems to be available. 

God, we ask for the wisdom, courage, and strength to work for justice and for the humility to be allies for our neighbors. Remind us when we forget, that many of us are privileged and have power that we can wield on the behalf of those who have been ignored in spite of their efforts to be heard. Even if it is our first time to take a stand, help us press forward, embrace the wisdom of other’s lives, and provide a platform from which the disenfranchised may speak for themselves and be heard.

We ask that You cultivate in us the gift of insight so that we might discover together new and wise ways to share the fiscal, social, and cultural benefits offered in this city. Reveal to us a new way to reason and negotiate with one another for our common good. 

Inspire our leaders to listen to the wisdom of those who have been ignored, but whose lived experience reveals the truth of our true connections to one another and to You.

Amen.


Martha L. Wharton holds a doctorate in English, has a law degree, and is a spiritual director. She works as a grief educator and support, and conducts diversity workshops. Now she is developing a spiritual direction practice in Baltimore, MD.