‘Everyday Contemplative’

You don’t have to be a monk or hermit to commit to contemplative praying and living, L. Roger Owens writes in this excerpt from his new book.

The other day a friend from graduate school called my office. She is now a pastor in nearby West Virginia, but I hadn’t seen her in years. She had a question she wanted to discuss and wondered if we could meet for lunch if she made the ninety-minute drive to the seminary where I teach. She told me over the phone that she knows people who have spiritual directors — guides in the life of prayer and life with God — with whom they meet once a month or so to help them find their way through the darkness and confusion that life often is. I assume they had told her the benefits of having such a soul friend: the zone of nonjudgment they create; the way they have no agenda for your life; the value of knowing a holy chat is scheduled monthly; the sheer gift of having a place where you can laugh or cry, ponder or rage without fear; the little light their presence can cast into the dimness of your soul. She’d started to wonder whether spiritual direction would be good for her, too.

“I’d like to talk to you about whether I might be a good candidate for spiritual direction,” she said. I agreed to chat over lunch. I looked forward to seeing an old friend. And the hands-down best Thai restaurant in Pittsburgh is just a mile away from the seminary. I love to take people there and recommend the pumpkin curry at a spice level not to exceed “four.” But it was winter, and she’d have a two-hour hilly drive and would need to check the forecast before embarking. So maybe I should have saved her the trouble of coming. Just knowing she was thinking about spiritual direction enough to wonder whether she was a good candidate, just by hearing how she had spoken with friends who were benefiting from this practice, and just by realizing she would be willing to brave the hills in the snow to have a conversation over an excellent curry dish, I had all the information I needed. “Yes,” I should have told her. “You are a good candidate for spiritual direction.”

Some folks might have the same question about contemplative praying and living: Am I a good candidate for that? If there are any doubts, it’s because we carry around in our minds stereotypical pictures of spiritual people, contemplative types who seem nothing like us: robed monks with sandaled feet and impossible haircuts who shuffle to prayer seven times a day, sometimes at hours when there’s some question whether even God is awake. Desert hermits who live in caves and have friends deliver to them a loaf of crusty bread once a week to sustain them through their extreme ascetic practices, perhaps splurging on a plate of simple vegetables on feast days. Famous gurus who trumpet through their books, their podcasts, and their Twitter accounts that they are genuine mystics, lost in a profound oneness with the All. No way am I a candidate for that kind of life, we think.

Or sometimes we read about contemplation, and it sounds so difficult, like a particular type of prayer that involves a lot of sitting and holding your hands just right and letting your vision go soft as you stare into a void — a kind of prayer you could only learn how to do if you signed up for a weeklong retreat, preferably at a facility on an idyllic island off the coast of Washington State. (There are a lot of contemplatives in the Pacific Northwest, right?) Odd people engaging in esoteric prayer on remote islands. Thanks, but no thanks. But what if the word contemplative doesn’t just name a narrowly defined kind of prayer — which it sometimes does — but also a possible approach to all prayer? What if the same word doesn’t denote a specific way of life — extreme, alone, with lots of somber sitting and eating simple vegetables — but can describe any life that seeks to be more open, available, and responsive to the One who is as present in an office cubicle as in a hermit’s cell? Sure, there are people living contemplatively in monasteries and convents (and people not living contemplatively there, too). There are also contemplatives working at library reference desks and delivering Amazon Prime packages, scrambling to complete tax returns in April and changing linens in hotel rooms. There are contemplatives talking about God from pulpits and contemplatives listening in the pews. And there are contemplatives in the colorful rooms beneath the sanctuary teaching the kids too young to endure preaching. Some of those kids are also contemplatives. In other words, most contemplatives are everyday contemplatives. When I look up the word everyday in the dictionary, I see it means “common” and “ordinary.” Like faded blue jeans in the dresser drawer. Like you and me. Maybe our pictures should be in the dictionary next to the word.

Parents and principals can live contemplatively. Doctors and lawyers can be attentive to the Divine. Custodians and dentists can be open to God. Hospital orderlies and nursing home residents all have the capability of opening and responding to the refrains of divine love being sung from the depth of every soul. Contemplatives are protesting with the Black Lives Matter movement. They are marching with the Poor People’s Campaign. Contemplatives might start by sitting in a La-Z-Boy, but they don’t stop there. Perhaps some of these folks, if they’ve been allowing themselves to learn this refrain of Love over a long period of time, walk just a little slower, make eye contact a little more often, listen more patiently as you answer their question, “How are you?” They seem to show up in their lives and in your life as their authentic, truest selves. But they don’t do so in a way that calls attention to themselves. More likely, it is in a way that gives greater attention to you. And they almost never announce that they have become contemplatives.

Thomas Merton writes that contemplative praying and living is a “response to a call: a call from [God] Who has no voice, and yet Who speaks in everything that is, and Who, most of all, speaks in the depths of our own being: for we ourselves are words of [God].”

To live contemplatively means simply to approach life with openness, availability, and growing responsiveness to the God who speaks in everything, to the God who speaks from the depths of our very selves, to the God who spoke us into existence. If you were to Google the seminary where I teach, find my office phone number on the faculty page, and ring me to ask whether you’re a good candidate to be an everyday contemplative, I’d say three things.

First, I’d say, “Please call me ‘Roger.’”

Second, I’d ask, “How far away do you live, and what’s your opinion of pumpkin curry?”

Finally, I’d answer your question: “Yes, of course you are.”

 

From “Everyday Contemplative: The Way of Prayerful Living,” by L. Roger Owens. Copyright © 2022. Excerpted by permission of Upper Room Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Bethel AME Church in Morristown, New Jersey, has been a catalyst for collaboration in providing a feeding ministry to the community. Photo courtesy of Bethel AME Church

Congregations should see with new eyes as they re-envision ministries in a world reshaped by twin pandemics, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

As chaplain in a volunteer fire department, I accompanied survivors wandering through the wreckage of fires, picking up pieces of the past and pondering next steps. I think of those moments as we move beyond lockdowns and start charting the future.

Many are assessing the damage to health, careers, families, neighbors and institutions. Some continue to feel the initial shock of loss. Some are moving through the debris looking for treasures to salvage and recalling what came before. Others recognize that they never had a place in what was lost and hope that whatever comes next will be different.

Those with energy are ready to make decisions about the future. They are considering the condition of structures and processes that are still standing. Some are deciding to raze everything and start from scratch. Others are looking at the insurance money and any other resources they have to determine what seems possible and practical.

In the case of a home that burned, at some point the family asks, “What sort of life do we aspire to live in this place?” They consider both their present circumstances and their hopes for the future.

Some are determined to replicate what has been lost. Almost all want to make improvements. A few want something very different — a new place with new neighbors. But most feel pressured to decide what is next before they feel ready.

What have we learned in these last two years about our lives, our neighbors and our world? What is our vision for the future? What do we rebuild, and why that thing? How have we been changed by seeing injustices that we had previously ignored or accepted as facts of life? What will we do differently? Can we take the time to decide?

More than a decade ago, I facilitated a visioning and planning process for an affluent white congregation that had a reputation for generosity in missions and a vision for justice. In the process, the congregation looked closely at its immediate community and realized that they had focused their attention on the major thoroughfare and the connected neighborhoods that their building faced. They had completely blocked out the neighbors behind their building, who had socioeconomic situations and racial and ethnic identities very different from those of the neighbors on the thoroughfare.

In discussions, the congregation decided to open itself to the neighbors in the back. The fence and bushes that shut out those neighbors were removed. This had an immediate impact, because it cleared a pathway for the neighbors to reach a bus stop in front of the church property. The congregation looked to cultivate relationships with both the neighbors and those the neighbors trusted.

The visioning process was complete and the fence down when the church sanctuary burned. The education and recreation facilities were spared, but the sanctuary was gone. In the next years, the congregation decided to build a new sanctuary that looked similar to the previous one but was oriented in a different direction. The new front doors would face the side yard and parking lot. Church members would no longer enter and leave worship looking at the thoroughfare.

They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.

What have the viral and racial pandemics exposed that you need to acknowledge in the rebuilding of your congregation or organization? What neighbors have you now seen? With whom are you joining forces? What public policy have you challenged that needs further revision?

This is a moment when we can examine fundamental assumptions. For congregations, this can be as basic as considering how we measure effectiveness.

For generations, congregations have gauged their vitality by average worship attendance. In the 20th century, this was an elegant measure that told insiders and outsiders much about the dynamics of a congregation, from the number of staff to hire to the size of facilities needed. Those who attended were the most likely to give money, serve on committees and attend Bible study.

COVID-19 made average attendance worthless as both a measure of vitality and a sign of faithfulness. If we need to measure effectiveness now, we need something else.

Recently, Reginald Blount invited me to consider how to measure the impact of Christian discipleship on the world. How could we measure social impact from Christian witness? How might that measure help us figure out what to rebuild and where?

Surveys by the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicate — and even the casual observer knows — that many congregations made redesigning worship their highest priority during the COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, congregations figured out how to do outdoor and virtual services. The second priority for many congregations was what sociologists call social outreach — meeting human needs for food, clothing, shelter and more.

In the 20th century, congregations saw worship as the gateway to deeper involvement in their activities. The implication was that the number of times people came to the church building was the mark of their engagement as Christians.

But what might happen if we saw worship as the occasion of focusing on God, from which flowed an invitation to engage our neighbors? Instead of rebuilding programs to attend, congregations might address the working conditions in the community. Instead of planning a building for the members to gather, congregations might re-envision the property as a staging area for life-giving resources or quality working conditions.

If we need examples of this life, we can look to the stories of many Black congregations. I recently visited the Bethel AME Church of Morristown, New Jersey. Their building is a place of worship and home to a feeding ministry that extends throughout the county.

This relatively small church is the catalyst for collaboration among multiple organizations and individuals. The number of people participating in the feeding ministry on a weekly basis far exceeds the number attending the congregation’s worship. By engaging in ministry, the people see with new eyes.

In rebuilding, perhaps we should start with why we are rebuilding and who is at the center of our rebuilding. If God’s love for the world is our why, then our neighbors can be our who. If so, what we rebuild might have renewed purpose and profound impact on the world.

A view of the skyline of the city of Fresno, California. Unsplash / Grant Porter

The director of housing and homeless services for the city of Fresno speaks on what faith has taught him about urban development work.

Cities are often seen as the center of sin in the world, but H Spees encourages Christians to look at them differently.

“When you look at the cities with prophetic imagination, cities are gifts from God,” Spees says, pointing to the city of God in the book of Revelation.

Instead of letting a city become a place of suffering, our responsibility as a community is to make sure that the city works for everyone.

Drawing on his background of faith and work with civil rights leader John Perkins, Spees sees great opportunity for Christians to put their faith to work in their communities and make sure that no one is neglected.

Spees has worked for the city of Fresno since 2017, and before that, he worked for 40 years in community-based organizations. He is also an ordained minister.

Spees spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about how his faith informs his work and how Christians should approach cities. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: You’ve worn many hats throughout your career. What brought you to working for the city of Fresno?

H Spees: What brought me here most directly was my run for mayor of Fresno in 2016. I ran on a platform of community development, especially with investing in marginalized neighborhoods. According to the Brookings Institution, we [range] between first and fifth in terms of cities in America with the highest percentage of concentrated poverty neighborhoods.

I came in third in the primary, and then I supported the guy that came in second. He won, and then surprisingly, he turned around and said, “Look, you get this community stuff, and I get finances and the business side; let’s team up.”

So I became director of strategic initiatives for the Lee Brand administration. And then when Jerry Dyer, our current mayor, took over, he asked me to focus on one thing: homelessness.

So that’s basically how I have ended up here.

Before that, as my wife would say, we got severely off track. We grew up in Los Angeles. We were high school sweethearts. Because of her, I went to church and I had an encounter with Jesus Christ as a senior in high school.

About a year and a half or so later, when I was a student at USC, a civil rights leader by the name of John Perkins came to speak at our church. John challenged a group of us to come South for the summer. So I did an internship in Mississippi in 1972, came back and got married.

We went back to Mississippi and led a team from our church for a second summer, in ’73. And that summer stretched into 11 years. We spent 11 years living under the mentorship of John and Vera Mae Perkins. And in the last six of those years, I was setting up health centers in towns that didn’t have physicians, recruiting doctors and dentists and nurse practitioners to basically deliver health care.

I joke that everything I learned about urban development I learned in rural Mississippi, because the dynamics there are all the same that I deal with today — the issues of poverty and especially race and resource development in underresourced communities.

F&L: What were some of the lessons you took away from that time that you find are directly applicable right now in your work?

HS: The most profound takeaway for us was the concept of incarnational ministries and proximity. I think a shortcut for somebody like myself — who’s a boomer and the product of upwardly mobile post-World War II — to see what’s going on in the world is proximity and embedding, having the opportunity to live in the community, because everything else gets put into perspective.

In our experience in Mississippi, one of the things that was really profoundly undoing was really seeing how a group of African American folks coming out of Jim Crow that didn’t have the resources or the educational qualifications simply nailed their shoes to the floor and said, “We aren’t going to move until God uses us to change our community.”

And standing with the Rev. Perkins and Vera Mae, but also the older African American leaders that supported them, put my life into perspective. These are folks that had carved 150 acres of farmland out of red clay soil while basically being sharecroppers until they saved enough money to purchase their own farm.

Standing next to people like that, my inner life basically said, “My faith looks very superficial by comparison.” And that posture, that opportunity, being mentored and having a chance to walk alongside profound leaders like that — it impacts you.

F&L: How do you find your faith informing your work in homelessness?

HS: Two things that come to mind are the value of the human person — imago Dei — and shalom.

The challenge that any city has in America today, especially on the West Coast, is how you balance the tension between affirming the dignity of every person on the street and at the same time assuring the quality of life for residents and businesses that are severely impacted by encampments.

Those two values, holding those two things in tension, is a big deal. Theologically, to realize that Jesus identifies with that person on the street, that the whole Matthew 25 statement focuses on the least of these, the radical identification that Jesus made with humanity, but especially marginalized humanity, is breathtaking. And I think that drives the work.

One of the things that we do is encampment resolution. So when you see a young woman with meth scars on her face, beautiful young person in the grip of addiction, dragging all of her life’s belongings of today in a blue tarp along the street as her encampment is being relocated — at that point, imago Dei is very important, critical. And at the same time, there’s shalom.

Theologically, shalom is right relationship: relationship vertically with God, and vertically with the Earth and the environment, and horizontally with people across racial, cultural, economic, all barriers. Shalom from a civil society perspective is when all the systems and structures in the city work for everybody all the time and nobody’s left out.

Those two theological truths and energy sources, imago Dei and shalom, I think really drive our work around homelessness. And homelessness is the No. 1 social moral issue of our day.

We put together a thing called HART, the Homeless Assistance Response Team, made up of 18 outreach workers from an organization called the Poverello House. Those outreach workers are from every background, every gender identity, every ethnicity. Many of them have lived experience [with homelessness]. Many of them have themselves come through recovery.

They’re the ones that are engaging our most toxic, difficult encampments as we seek to offer housing and services for folks to resolve encampments in our community, one encampment at a time.

F&L: How do you think Christians should participate in the life of their cities?

HS: One of the things I’ve learned is how important it is to see cities as playgrounds rather than battlegrounds. Cities are a gift from God.

There are themes in literature and in our culture that paint the city as the repository of everything evil and tempting, and the rural, the bucolic, as somehow more virtuous.

But really what started in the garden in Genesis becomes a city in Revelation. It’s how we steward them that’s important. They can be the beloved communities we talk about. But also, they can become a catch basin for human misery.

I think it was in 2008, when I was doing my doctorate program — or 2009 — when worldwide there was one more person living in a city than in a rural area. It’s when the global reality shifted to being more urban. By 2050, 68% of the global population will live in cities. We must address the city, but we should address it through the lens of gift and the opportunity to see cities as playgrounds rather than battlegrounds.

I look at the city as a kind of circle that has three thirds: the private sector, the public sector and the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit sector is the one that’s sometimes the fastest growing, at least in the U.S. over the last several decades. But at the center there’s another sector, which is the community sector. This comes out of the work of John McKnight, who talks about asset-based community development. That’s where people actually live. That’s where mediating institutions, which is a civil society term for informal, voluntary associations, really come together.

The family, the local elementary school, the PTA, the sports teams, the small butcher shop — all of those things that make up a neighborhood. And I think, from the perspective of someone of faith, the question is, “Where is the church in that picture?”

I think that too often, Christians have oversimplified their view of the city, where they say that here’s the city and here’s the church in the center, and that if people would just come to Jesus then everything would be fine.

The reality is that the more complex picture of the city with the four sectors, three being institutional and one being community, really gives a much more robust opportunity for people of faith to engage.

If the community sector is the neighborhoods in the city, the people of God are already there. There are a million ways that folks are there, and the arrogance of a church that would say, “We’re going to take faith into the city” just completely overlooks the fact that it’s already there.

People of God are placed in positions in every one of the institutions making up the other sectors, whether it’s in public education or law enforcement or business or journalism or at the United Way or in the synagogue or part of the Islamic cultural center. Wherever it is, the people of God are positioned in all those spaces.

The Spirit is already there at work. And our job is to join.

Book cover detail from "Resurrection Hope"

In her recent book, Kelly Brown Douglas speaks about how resurrection hope means working toward a future where Black life can flourish.

Our children can ask tough questions.

One of the tough questions that Kelly Brown Douglas faced from her son, a Black man, was whether Black lives would ever matter.

It was in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic and public killings of Black men were all over the news. The question was crucial, but the answers weren’t so simple and pushed Douglas to examine what she really believed about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“I get it that Christ is Black,” he said to Douglas. “But what difference is that making to us right now? Black people are still getting killed.”

It’s answering this question that drives Douglas’ book “Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter.” In the book, she articulates how she, and this nation, can get stuck on the crucifixion, where death becomes the end of the story. Instead, she argues, Christians should turn to meet Christ in Galilee, finding him and joining him in the work of making a new life.

Douglas spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and what we can learn from our children’s questions. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What led you to write this book?

Kelly Brown Douglas: All of my books begin with a journey of “faith seeking understanding,” to quote Anselm. That’s what I think theology is; that’s what it has been for me.

And so my writings always begin with these issues and questions of faith as I try to understand the justice of God amid the realities of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and ongoing systemic, cultural sin.

In this instance, those questions of my own faith were exacerbated because I was also facing the questions of my son, as a mother. My son and I often find ourselves in various conversations as he navigates what it means to be Black and male in a culture and a society so thoroughly saturated with white supremacist, anti-Black realities.

And my son kept asking me a question in 2020 that I could not turn away from: “Will Black lives ever really matter?”

That question cut to the core for me, what it meant for me to be a mother and my concern for my son and his future and the future of his kids. And it also cut to the core of my faith, because that question — “Will Black lives ever really matter?” — was really the question, “Can we really trust in the promise of God for a more just future?”

If Black lives are never going to matter, then that promise of God is a false promise, so we cannot trust him. And so the many different ways in which he asked that question, and sometimes directly, is what pushed me into this journey through this book.

My son grew up in the church and grew up with the notion of the Black Christ. But he was asking a question of theodicy.

In the midst of the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, what did it matter that Christ identified with us? And what I realized is that I was stuck on the cross and this Christ that was Black was dying with us. But Black death was being sanctified and became necessary.

His question took me there. What does the Black Christ really mean?

F&L: What does resurrection hope look like, then?

KBD: It took me a while to get there. This book was a journey through despair, to faith, through doubt, back to faith, through crucifixion, to resurrection. It affirmed and made me really believe that faith and doubt go together.

Even though I can come out and say at the end of this book that there’s resurrection hope, that doesn’t mean that it’s a once-and-for-all journey, and that I won’t have to walk through this journey again.

Faith is not a one-time journey. Hope is something that, I think, takes work.

And so what does that look like, on two levels? First, it means understanding what got us to this place and the depth of the reality that we live in, where Black lives have come not to matter.

We keep repeating this crucifying reality; we keep repeating Good Friday over and over and over again. I had to ask myself, “Does God allow us to die?”

One of the things that was happening in the nation because of George Floyd’s death, everyone was coming to this sort of new awakening of racial injustice. It required Black death to get us there, but we’d already had a number of crucifixions. We already went through Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Philando Castile; Rekia Boyd and Atatiana Jefferson.

How many Black deaths does it require just to get us to recognize that there’s racial injustice, and how many more Black deaths are going to happen before we create a racially just society?

I was stuck on Good Friday, but this nation is stuck on Good Friday, too, when it comes to Black lives.

So I said, “Maybe if that’s where we are, then this isn’t the faith for me.” But then I heard the scripture of the resurrected Jesus telling the disciples to meet him at Galilee; I literally remember hearing that in my head. And I went in search of Galilee.

The only Galilee that I could think of at that point was the Black Lives Matter protests down in D.C. And to be in those protests, among those protestors, I knew then that it is in this movement for a more just future that we really see the movement of the resurrected Christ. You really see God, and you feel the presence of God. Because I felt, I felt the presence of God, and my hope was reawakened.

And that’s the resurrection hope. Hope is a signal of transcendence, but hope is always an active thing, as the resurrection is an active thing. It required people to move and to go back to Galilee and to recommit themselves to the ministry of Jesus.

In that protest, these people believed, really believed, that a future where Black lives could matter would indeed become a reality, because if they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t be down there fighting for it. And that to me is hope, what hope looks like. And that is what resurrection hope looks like, because it calls you to life so that we can partner together in creating new life.

F&L: Looking toward Easter, how do you think our Easter hopes should be influenced by the events of the world?

KBD: If we’re going to talk about the resurrection, the Easter resurrection, we cannot talk about that apart from the crucifixions that are happening in our society and in our world.

We have to ask ourselves, “Where would the resurrected Jesus be calling us to?” Where’s Galilee for us, and what does that mean for us in terms of the ways in which we have to partner with God to move toward new life?

When we talk about Easter Sunday, we can’t just talk about it and say, “I believe the Lord is risen.” What does that look like practically, in reality, in history? We only know what that looks like when we have an appreciation for the crucifying reality, from which God has freed us or is trying to free us.

F&L: You talk about the silence of the white church in the book — what should Easter look like for them?

KBD: It should look like the courage to claim their voices and to really claim their faith.

We hear the voices of the white church when it’s George Floyd. We didn’t hear that much around many others who have died. Why don’t we hear those voices when it’s not a big thing on TV? Black people are being killed every day; where are those white clergy voices now?

I think that the white church has to reclaim its faith and what it really means to have faith in a resurrected Jesus.

I think of the white church like the religious leaders and disciples after Jesus’ death cowering behind closed doors in fear.

Who are the enemies that they’re scared of? Are they afraid of losing some kind of privilege? Easter for the white church should mean being called out from behind those closed doors.