Raising My Voice and Praying Expansively

Whenever there is a major event happening in the world, in the United States, or locally, I get a text from my colleague and dear friend, Tripp Hudgins, at ABSW: “Blog?” he asks. Since he came aboard at ABSW almost two years ago, Tripp has been encouraging, nay, urging, nagging, and prodding the faculty and administration at the seminary to get our light out from under its bushel. He wants us to contribute our voices and our unique perspectives to the ongoing conversations that happen via social media, in the twitterverse, through blogs, on the interwebs everywhere and all the time—but especially when major things happen. Protests, mass shootings, bombings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, racist attacks, police brutality, and non-indictments: all of these generate massive dialogue on the internet.

Public theology means that our faith traditions can make meaningful, even radically transformative contributions to civic discourse and public policy at times of crisis as well as calm. The Jesus we seek to follow did not shy away from making his faith publicly significant. He weighed in on taxes, imprisonment, just pay, forgiveness of debt, ethnocentrism (which would be the equivalent of racism today), and the deep value of women and girls. Jesus allowed his life to be ended in a most public and political way when he was crucified by the Roman Empire. His earliest followers stayed true to this public living out of faith through their formation of radical communities with shared property, meals that crossed the boundaries of social status, and offerings distributed to the poor. Other early followers also gave their bodies over to be destroyed by the empire in order to point to a reality of Love and Resistance that will forever be greater than any empire—then and now.

Though there were plenty of times Jesus stepped away from the crowds so that he could rest and pray, once his faith became public at around age 30, it was definitely not in the form of quietism. Jesus was active, engaged, and not afraid of conflict with the politically and religiously powerful people of his time. Quietism, whether or not it ever actually existed as such, is a sort of deeply unflattering caricature of contemplatives who sought unity with God’s Sprit above all else, even to the eradication of their own in-tact selves for the sake of the world. Such self-annihilation is considered heretical inasmuch as it leads to, well, it leads to nothing. As the great Evelyn Underhill wrote: “The self must be surrendered: but it must not be annihilated, as some Quietists have supposed. It only dies that it may live again” (Underhill, Mysticism, 68).

So please don’t get me wrong when I say: It is at times like this that I long with all my heart for quiet. Even though the request comes in for me to say something in the form of a blog, and even though I believe that my Christian faith tradition has much to contribute at times like this—despite this, I know that the last thing I want to do right now is contribute to the cacophony of voices that are clamoring to be heard right now. Some of those voices are prophetic, some are strident; some are beautiful and grace-filled, some are challenging and hard-to-swallow; some are gospel-filled, some are hate-filled; some are war-mongering, some are peacemaking; some are creative, some are cliché; some we desperately need to hear, some not so much. But when I think about being one more voice (a voice perhaps more likely to be cliché or strident than prophetic or grace-filled), I honestly just want to be quiet instead.

This morning the scripture for my meditation came from Luke 18:35-43. (You can find the meditation on the site Pray-as-You-Go.) In this text, a man who desires healing is sitting by the side of the road when he hears that Jesus is near. So he calls out from the bottom of his soul: “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” He cries out so loudly that the crowd surrounding him grows anxious and demands him to be quiet. But he persists and calls out even more loudly to Jesus: “Have mercy on me!” His cry brings Jesus to a standstill. The poor man’s voice pierces Jesus through, and he comes to a full stop. Jesus orders that the man be brought to him. (An aside: If Jesus orders this to be done, is it, then, an ordinance that we need to follow like we do the Lord’s Supper and baptism? Have we been ordained to bring those in need, those who are disrupting business-as-usual, those who embarrass us because of their boldness in expressing their need, to the front of the line to be heard and attended to?)

It was no coincidence, I couldn’t help but feel, that on the very morning that I desired so much to stay quiet that the person of faith who was lifted up to me was the man who raised his voice in the midst of the crowd. He did what only he could do—he cried out the prayer that was embedded deep within his heart. “Have mercy on me! Have mercy on me!”

The news these last few days have created a sort of spiritual whiplash. It was the terrorist attacks in Paris that broke first, filling Facebook News Feeds and Twitter feeds. But soon after folks’ profile photos began turning into the color of the French flag, and “Je suis Parisienne” began trending, news of the insidiousness and selectivity of white supremacy broke next. Paris wasn’t the only site of terrorist actions last week. Both Baghdad and Beirut had also been hit, but were not picked up by mainstream media or Facebook News Feeds. Meanwhile, Black students from the University of Missouri continue to fight against racist and terroristic threats on their home campus. Black high school students right here in Berkeley face down similar terroristic threats. And faith leaders and labor leaders meet to plan and execute protests against District Attorney Nancy O’Malley who continues to press charges against fourteen Black women and men who dared to confront capitalism last Black Friday 2014. There are more stories to list here; there are always more.

A former student at ABSW, Sydney Webster, was the one who broke through the noise and the fury: “Maybe your limited understanding of God makes you think that you cannot pray for everybody, that you have to prioritize and pick and choose. But if you are a praying person, your heart is full, and there is more than enough to cover Paris and Kenya and Syria and Palestine and Ferguson.” Something in my spirit leapt in recognition at her words. The spiritual discipline of praying expansively, with the passion and desperation of the man who desired healing—this is what both empties the heart and fills it again.

It is paradoxical, this emptying and filling. And I am able to see in it the quiet I so deeply desire. Evelyn Underhill illuminates a similar paradox: “The true condition of quiet, according to the great mystics, is at once active and passive: it is pure surrender, but a surrender which is not limp self-abandonment, but rather the free and constantly renewed self-giving and self-emptying of a burning love. The departmental intellect is silenced, but the totality of character is flung open to the influence of the Real. Personality is not lost: only its hard edge is gone.”

So I sit in the presence of this paradox, this quiet, this burning that kills and restores, and do my damnedest to write this blog to try and capture some small part of what has been true for me. And I cry out the prayer that is embedded deep within my heart, as one who desperately desires healing for myself and for this heartbreaking world. May our cries pierce the heart of Christ.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on Baghdad! Have mercy on Paris! Mend broken hearts! Have mercy on Minnesota! Bring truth to light! Have mercy on Oakland! Help us dismantle white supremacy! Have mercy on Palestine! Liberate the captives! Have mercy on Israel! Heal the wounded! Have mercy on Kenya! Comfort those who mourn! Have mercy on Syria! Have mercy on Berkeley! Give us the courage to confront unjust systems. Have mercy on us! Have mercy on me! Have mercy on us! Loosen the chains. Have mercy. Have mercy.”

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