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Anglican Archbishop and anti-apartheid leader in South Africa Desmond Tutu once noted that “if governments knew the danger of apophatic [or contemplative] prayer they would ban it immediately.”  In a similar vein, my wife’s grandfather “Pup” was known to have offered the following blessing: “May the peace of Christ disturb you.”

Despite images of the serene contemplative – whether he or she is sitting in a cave in the desert or in a modern meditation center or prayer group – there is a side to the contemplative process of transformation that can be wholly (and holy) disruptive.  One of the fruits of my contemplative practice in recent months has been a consistent disruption around a desire to be involved in addressing racial injustices and disparities.

That is why, in response to the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a former white police officer who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011, I decided to “pray with my feet” (as Dr. King and the members of the civil rights movement often stated it) and attend an interfaith prayer service and march held yesterday in downtown St. Louis.

I have been struggling for quite some time with the question of how best to respond, both to the injustices that I see in the world around me, and to the underlying sources of fear, anger, and anxiety that are driving so many of us (crazy) in our culture.  The contemplative side of my being reminds me to remain calm, to stay grounded in prayer and trust that there is an underlying unity to all of us – indeed to all reality – even amid the tensions and divisions.  At the same time one of the fruits of contemplation right now is that the Holy Spirit is disturbing me to act – to express solidarity with those whose voices are not heard in our culture and legal systems.

As I have tried to remain present to the conflicting feelings in my prayer and daily experience, I have noticed that the emotions of fear, anxiety, and anger tend to be in my head.  That is, they are reactions that emerge out of a place of wanting to be able to bring some kind of rational control to forces of injustice that are outside of my control.  This is an invitation to powerlessness, to engage a societal impasse that is much bigger than myself, much bigger than all of us.  If I open to that powerlessness, if I attempt to keep an open heart rather than seek someone to blame, then I find something else underneath the fear: sadness.

Sadness has been a consistent experience of my contemplative prayer recently.  The speakers at yesterday’s rally represented a full spectrum of religious diversity in St. Louis – Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, Evangelical, Muslim, and Jewish.  Their speeches expressed in the language and scriptures of our traditions the full range of human response to injustice and observing the suffering of our fellow community members – anger, frustration, hope, grief, and even joy.

The Reverend Dr. Cassandra Gould, pastor of Quinn Chapel AME Church, explained the civil disruptions that are planned for coming days and months.  The organizers are following in the footsteps of Gandhi, Dr. King, and non-violent civil activism.  She tethered these public disruptions to the disruptive grace that emerges out of tragedy and suffering.  And she noted that these disruptions may indeed anger those who have the privilege of not being disrupted by racial disparity and injustice.  She gave a name to what I had been experiencing: “disruptive grace.”

I broke into tears when the very last speaker, pastor Trey Herwick, a white leader of an evangelical church in the wealthy suburb of St. Charles, admitted to feeling a bit out of place, but then humbly asked the people gathered there to forgive him for his silence on issues of racism.  I realized in that moment how much of my own resentment I harbor toward what I perceive to be the unquestioned comfort among many of my evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ.  That is definitely a group where I place blame in order to soothe my own conscience, to lessen the discomfort of disruptive grace.  I found myself letting go of some my own resentments, and renewed in my faith that prayer and public calls for justice can be disruptive moments of conversion for all of us.

Sadness has a different quality than the frenetic energy of fear, anxiety, and anger.  It is somehow more “earthy,” more grounded, more connected.  It is held more in the heart than in the head.  Sadness is connected to a sense of loss of what I believe to be the much deeper unity of the human community and of the earth.  Sadness is the vulnerable feeling associated with my (and humanity’s) groping for a justice that always seems just beyond reach, seems to slip too easily between our fingers.

If they are honestly recognized and wisely engaged, both anger and sadness have their place.  I have written elsewhere that anger can motivate us to act on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable, for the common good.*  Sadness emerges out of the sense of loss at the elusiveness of justice.  Both together can lead to an experience such as the prophet Jeremiah experienced in working through the injustices he witnessed in ancient Israel:

Within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.

– Jeremiah 20:9

This is the prophetic side of contemplation.  It is the disruptive grace that the Holy Spirit brings as gift, but that is buried deep within and underneath all the surface level fears, anxieties, angers, and sadness.  As a contemplative I have learned to sift through those feelings searching for the voice of God.  As a human it is time for me to pray with my feet.

The challenge, I must admit, is that I don’t know what to do.  Where do I/we begin?  In my wrestling with this question I have come back to my contemplative practice.  It begins with listening.  I am relatively new to St. Louis, so I have been asking around about who the leaders are who are advocating for full implementation of the recommendations proposed by the Ferguson report.  Many of these leaders were there yesterday, and this was an initial step toward solidarity.  But I admit that I do not know these leaders personally, and I live in a parallel world of privilege, even as I walk down the same streets.

Some friends have begun to introduce me to people in the movement.  I want to show up.  I want to listen.  It is uncomfortable.  I don’t know where it is leading.  But then, I’ve had that experience before in moments where prayer feels dry and pointless and I don’t know where the Spirit is leading within.  This is the necessary side of the contemplative life where I am disrupted both within and without.


“This is What Theology Looks Like!”

As we marched yesterday we chanted: “This is What Theology Looks Like!”  The heart of contemplation is union in love.  And theologian Cornel West reminds us that “justice is what love looks like in public.”  And so this is indeed what theology looks like.  It looks like disruptive grace.  Our job is to listen, respond, and act.  That is what I’m trying to do, however insufficient the response might feel.


*See Politics for a Pilgrim Church, pp. 109-121.
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