“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” The words are from Kurt Vonnegut, the art is that of a tagger on a hidden wall in Boulder, the city I used to live in. It aptly conveys the anxious end of an idyllic – though illusory – season in the lives of the white elite, including mine. This photo I took of it fits what I’m about to say.
We in the West are facing something unlike most any of us under 100 years of age have faced in our lives. A global pandemic in the midst of an economic upheaval. Many of us are living paycheck to paycheck and we’re concerned about ourselves, and our friends and loved ones. This is true for even the most privileged of people living in the most privileged of cities in the U.S. The coronavirus and the economic upheaval we’re experiencing are not respecters of persons. We’re all screwed here. And even as we socially distance, we’re all in this together. People we each know and love will die and/or go bankrupt. People we know and love won’t be able to pay their rent or mortgages. Theologically speaking, we’re all losing our collective and individual shit. Reckon that explains the unanticipated hoarding of toilet paper.
I wrote a piece awhile back, “O We of Little Faith,” that holds a mirror up to our actual state of fear – despite our claims to be people of faith. I’d written an earlier one pointing out how many of us put our actual faith in guns instead of God. But, we don’t have to be prisoners of our historic patterns and tendencies. We don’t have to manifest Thomas Hobbes’ hunch about humanity in a state of Nature, as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Indeed, who we might actually be in nature, being who we really are, may well be rather the opposite of all of that – or at least the opposite of those first two.
Our Buddhist friends tell a story about the era of the violent warlords in Japan. A feared warlord was mercilessly plundering and pillaging his way across the land when he entered a village that had vacated before he arrived. He and his troops marched in, then entered a temple where he found one man, a zen master, sitting on the stone floor with his eyes closed. Insulted, the warlord shouts “Don’t you know who I am?! I’m the one who can run a blade through you without batting an eye!” To which the priest calmly responds, “Ah, but I’m the one you can run a blade through without batting an eye.”
Buddhists don’t have a monopoly on equanimity in the face of crisis. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Christian movement was en route from England to his failed missionary trip to the British colony of Georgia. The ship got caught in a severe storm the likes the captain and crew had never seen. Everyone was scrambling around in panic – everyone except for a small group of Moravian Christians. They were calmly singing hymns and quietly praying. John Wesley was awestruck by their calm demeanor in the midst of chaos. He wanted what they had – and he knew it might be possible for him some day – as they were living proof.
Even though our society has conditioned us to be in a constant stress state of having to perform, strive, scurry, hurry, hustle, and hoard, there are some things we can do to reset, reorient, repent, and reclaim who and Whose we really are. Here are some reminders that may be helpful to us:
* Jesus was born in barn. Okay, if not exactly a proper barn, in the side entry/cave to a home where they kept the livestock – and the literal crap that goes with them. According to our story, God somehow become incarnate with us by meeting us right where we tend to be – in states of crap and chaos. Through remembering that messy birth (no matter how high or low your Christology) we remember that God is with us through whatever we face.
* Few of the early Christians lived long lives. Most of the original disciples were executed. Thousands of Christians were persecuted, burned as torches, and/or thrown to lions. They knew they were called to be faithful – not to have long lives. The apostle Paul didn’t minimize anything when he wrote:
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. … We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. … We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit [her]self intercedes for us through wordless groans. And God who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. ..Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, inall these things we are more than conquerors through God who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [excerpts from Romans 8]
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed this in the last speech he gave – the night before he was killed.“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like any man, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Memphis, April 3, 1968
We can take heart knowing that fellow humans are capable of prioritizing faith and embracing that life is fleeting and that we’re called to be faithful, not “successful.”
* We can be less anxious. We’re called to be people of faith, not people of fear. The late French theologian Henri Nouwen invites us to work toward becoming a non-anxious presence in the world. Note the words “work” and “toward” – it involves intention, discipline, and practice – and we may never become perfectly non-anxious.
* Ironically, the needed work involved here – is mostly a matter of just being. As Psalm 46:10 reminds us, we’re called to “be still and know that God is God.” We’re called to be human beings – not human doings. Sure, we need to roll up our sleeves here and there to provide for ourselves and others, but who we really are isn’t our doings, it’s our being. Who we really are is our souls. Who we really are is love. How we sense this is through practices such as centering prayer.
There are helpful practices such as prayer journals, listing what we’re grateful for, breath work, yoga, etc, which can help, and one practice that I find to be particularly helpful is centering prayer.
Centering Prayer is a contemplative spiritual practice which is essentially spending quality time with God. You can do it anywhere. It is practice being a human BEing – instead of a human DOing. Sometimes referred to as “Christian meditation,” centering prayer is an ancient Christian practice based upon practices of the “Desert Fathers and Mothers.” Centering Prayer isn’t meant to be the only form of prayer a person engages in. It does not replace intercessory or petitionary prayer, etc. The practice is intended to help us have a balanced, full, and connected prayer life and life in general. It helps us to be present to Presence.
The Centering Prayer method in a nutshell:
* Set aside 10-45 minutes in a quiet place. It can be in a gorgeous national park, in your car, at work, in your kitchen, on a bus, or in a plastic booth at McDonalds. (During this time of social isolation – practicing this at home is ideal!) Sit comfortably with your back straight. Choose a “prayer word” and gently say it in your mind to invite your awareness to God’s presence (e.g. “Spirit,” “Peace”, “Grace”, “Love,” “Abba,” “Ama,” “God,” etc.).
* Sit still, close your eyes, and just BE with God.
* Don’t think of things to say or ask, just sit in God’s presence and enjoy each other’s company.
* When your mind starts to wander or become distracted, acknowledge the distraction, then gently say your prayer word in your mind to invite your deep self to come back to your intention to being centered and present to and with Presence.
* Just – “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
* At the end of the 10-45 minutes, slowly say a prayer under your breath (maybe the Lord’s Prayer, etc.) to bring yourself back your “normal” present – (but your normal will gradually transform due to the practice of centering prayer!).
You are a beautiful child of God and God wants to bless and enjoy you just as you are. And who you are isn’t someone needing to maintain privilege in an unjust world. You’re someone who can shed it, embrace vulnerability, celebrate diversity – and your humble place within it – and who can live a meaningful life that is blessed – whether or not it happens to be a long one or involve much the way of wealth. Who you are is someone who can hold your shit and be with whatever comes your way – being present to Presence.
Blessings to us all as we do our work to Be more, to be still and know, be still, be …and be there for each other.
XX – Roger
Rev. Roger Wolsey is a certified Spiritual Director, ordained United Methodist pastor, and author of Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity He’s currently working on his next book: Discovering Fire: Enlivening Fuel for Religious & Non-Religious Hearts & Souls.