Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Prayer and the Power of Politics

During the week I was on my seven day silent retreat, several pivotal world events occurred: the Supreme Court decisions preserving the Affordable Care Act and the legalization of same-sex marriage; the coordinated bombings in France, Tunisia and Kuwait; Pres. Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and the burning of seven African-American churches in South Carolina. Given that I had set aside this time to pray and reflect, I gave these events a dedicated time each day for prayer. However, the issue that consumed most of my attention then and still now was and is the budget negotiations in Harrisburg regarding the proposed increase in funding for public education (which the Democrats and governor proposed and to date the Republicans have opposed).

I was specifically focused on this issue because I knew that while I was at the Retreat Center, fifteen folks had dedicated themselves to fast and maintain a presence on the Capitol steps for the ten days from June 20 to June 30 promoting the adoption of a fully funded formula for public education in Pennsylvania. A few months earlier, I had been part of a group that had developed the idea of a 100 day “Fast for Family Values” across the state, and then worked on the idea of a “Moral Takeover” in Harrisburg focused on a 10 day fast in the final days of the budget negotiations. I had joined about 150 others on June 20 initiating the fast, as we anointed the Capitol doors and laid hands literally and figuratively on the “Harrisburg 15” who would maintain a constant presence on the Capitol steps. During the ten days various groups came each day to support the fasters, but because of my prior commitment to the retreat, I was not among them.

Having been part of the planning up to that point, I was upset and troubled that I was not able to be to support them. As an alternative, I dedicated myself to pray for the fasters and for the negotiations each day. On the retreat grounds was a labyrinth. I didn’t know much about the tradition of praying a labyrinth, nor had I ever done it before in any sort of serious way. The labyrinth is a sort of maze on the ground, which is a tool for prayer and meditation used by many religious traditions. As one author says: “Walking the labyrinth is a way of praying with the body that invites the divine presence into an active conversation with the heart and soul. By engaging in this walking meditation, we are fully engaging our minds, bodies, and spirits at the same time.” On a few evenings I walked the labyrinth thinking of the budget negotiations and praying the words from the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” What struck me was that just as the labyrinth was circuitous route from the outside of the circle to the center, so too the ways of God usually do not
follow a straight path and often surprise us when our prayers are answered.

At other times I physically pointed my body in the direction of Harrisburg, even holding out my hands, seeking to reach out to the Capitol with longing and intention. In the morning and again at evening I read the latest news on the negotiations and added that information to my prayers. On a few occasions, I broke my internet silence enough to shoot off a brief email to my legislators, one of whom is the chair of the House Appropriations Committee and therefore a key player in the ongoing budget discussions. All in all I felt at one with the fasters and others advocating and protesting at the Capitol even though I was over 50 miles away.

All of this got me thinking about the power of prayer and the power of politics. Given the choice between joining in a protest or a march versus praying, I would always choose the former, so praying at a distance was different place for me. However, the more I prayed the more emboldened and hopeful I became, and I came to believe that however circuitous the route, justice for the school children of the state and of Philadelphia in particular would prevail. How I didn’t know, but it would prevail.

In their book Faith-Rooted Organizing authors Peter Heltzel and Alexia Salvatierra write “In faith-rooted organizing, we believe we can answer the question, ‘How do we want the world to be different because of our efforts?’ by casting a common vision rooted in God’s vision” (p. 29). Drawing from the examples of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, liberation theologians and others who rooted their protest in their faith, these authors challenge people of faith to use the tools of faith and their inherent trust in the God of justice to work for positive social change. Those of us involved in the fight for educational justice had done just that in calling for a fast, anointing the Capitol doors, laying hands on the faster and maintaining a prophetic presence. From afar, I was doing the same thing with my labyrinth walks and prayers toward the Capitol. In so doing I felt I was engaging the issue not just at the level of politics, but at the level of what the apostle Paul called “the principalities and powers” (Romans 8) undergirding the political system.

On one level, one might say, “Who are you kidding? Political power will win every time over praying.” Yet I don’t know. I remember Cory Aquino and the People Power Revolution in the Philippines when in 1986 masses of people marching and praying peacefully brought down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. I have read of Cesar Chavez’s fast for farmworker justice. I have read of the powerful transformation that took place in South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Maybe prayer and spiritual power is more than we, at least I, think it is. As I write this, there has been no dramatic change in state funding for education, yet for the first time in a long time, I have begun to feel that the sacrificial power of prayer could win the day, and persistent work backed and accompanying prayer might just prove to be too much for legislators to ignore. We can only wait and see, and of course, pray.

[Pictures by the Author; Labyrinth from Google Images looked very much like the labyrinth I walked]

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Ignatius (and Augustine) in the City

As I indicated in my previous posting, I recently participated in a seven day silent retreat at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Wernersville, PA. After the first four days I was floundering, feeling bored and a bit stressed about the whole experience. However on the fifth day, things turned around.

The retreat center is located on a hill overlooking a  valley tucked between two ridges and encompasses over 250 acres of verdant fields, numerous trees, and a variety of walking paths with shrines and benches on which to sit, read, meditate, pray, sleep or however the Spirit leads. Each day of the retreat I met with a spiritual director who gave me a series of instructions based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a regimen the founder of the Jesuits created to develop the spiritual life of the priests in the order. For many people this setting would have been idyllic, but for me it began to feel confining.

Several years ago I began practicing what I have come to call engaged spirituality . The focus of engaged spirituality is not to withdraw from normal life to meet God, but instead to immerse oneself in it. As I wrote in July 2010 I came to realize that “God was not far off only to be experienced in some mystical transcendence, God was among us to be touched and experienced in the busyness of life.” So I decided to take my retreat off campus and into the city of Reading (pronounced “Redding”) ten miles away.

On that morning, Bruce, my spiritual director, instructed me to use a particular approach to reading Scripture developed by Ignatius in the 16th century in which the reader, using imagination, places him/herself in the Biblical story and seeks to see the story from the inside. As James Martin says in The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything the purpose is to “[imagine] yourself in a scene in the Bible…and then take part in it” (p. 145). All four of the passages involved events in the early life of Jesus, and so were quite familiar to me. I drove to the Reading visitor’s center, got a map of the city and then parked my car on South 10th St.  near the South Reading Middle School, and began walking around the largely Mexican neighborhood. My adventure with Ignatius-style engaged spirituality began.

For the next four hours I followed a simple pattern. I would stop on the steps of a building and slowly read and think about the assigned passage. Then I would get up and walk for 20 minutes or so, taking in the sights, sounds, smells and feel of the neighborhood and then stop and write down my reflections and observations in a spiral notebook. Often I would sit and simply watch and listen to what was going on around me. In the spirit of the silent retreat, I did not speak to anyone unless they spoke to me. For instance I had a few panhandlers approach me and a couple times folks said something to me as they passed by. Other than that I simply observed and reflected what I saw.

I stopped on the steps of a church to read my first assigned Scripture of the day, which was the story of the birth Jesus in Luke 2. This is where the 4th century Christian philosopher Augustine showed up. Augustine, like Ignatius, developed a unique way of Bible reading. Augustine’s approach was to have the reader recast the story into his/her contemporary context. So as I read the first passage which was Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, I put myself in Mary and Joseph's shoes, but then I imagined what would this birth have looked like had it occurred  in this Reading neighborhood. In this neighborhood, where would one go if there "was no room" for a stranger to stay? Where would Mary and Joseph gone to give birth to their son? Would it be an alley somewhere or an abandoned house or the back of the car? I imagined that Mary and Joseph would have felt out of place in this strange town where the folks had a distinctly different accent from the folks in Nazareth.  As I reflected on these insights, this passage came alive to me in a new ways. I saw the vulnerability Mary and Joseph must have felt for their baby. I imagined myself holding this newborn child in this strange and vulnerable setting, and wondering, would he survive? What chance did he have? The idea that Jesus "shared our weakness" became very real as I imagined holding the Christ child on that Reading street.

As I walked the streets, I saw young mothers and fathers on the street with their little children. I thought of what it must have been like for Jesus. Perhaps some of these parents were undocumented in ways similar Mary, Joseph and Jesus, not fully accepted, yet struggling to survive. The young parents appeared to love their children, but  also knew their futures were difficult.  The kids were happy and playful, as were their parents, but if they were like Joseph, Mary and Jesus, underneath there probably was a great deal of confusion, fear and uncertainty.

I continued walking and paused on the steps of an old Methodist Church, a Spanish language Pentecostal church and a Habitat for Humanity project, I repeated the exercise with the other assigned Scriptures. I thought  of Jesus at age 12 years (Luke 2. 41-50) in a church somewhere talking to elders while his folks frantically searched all over Reading for three days looking for their missing child, who when he was found seemed non-plussed and unconcerned with his mother's question - "Why did you do this to us?" What confusion and terror the parents must have felt, wondering what was becoming of this boy, who seemed so sure of himself. As a parent I wondered about the elders who were talking to Jesus? Didn’t they wonder where the boy’s parents were? Where did Jesus eat and sleep the four days he was "missing?" Looking all over Reading only to find him a church? How frantic they must have been.

At another point I imagined John the Baptist baptizing Jesus (Matthew 3) by opening a fire hydrant on the street. As the water shot out in a long wide spray flooding the street, I could see in my mind’s eye children dancing and screeching with delight in the spray, while firefighters tried to close it off and shoo the people away. There in the midst of this chaos I saw Jesus come up to John and say “Let’s do this,” as John poured water on his head. And then “boom” everything stopped as a voice said “This is my Son, listen to him.”

The last Scripture of the day was the story of Jesus being tempted in the desert by Satan (Matthew 4). When Satan offered Jesus the power to turn stones into bread, I pondered what would the "stones" in Reading be like. It came to me that Jesus might recognize that some of the homeless folks, the addicts, the unemployed, and the lonely elderly I passed as I walked might feel as listless and useless as stones, and not like bread that could nourish others. Wouldn't Jesus instantly be tempted to give them meaning and a sense of their own value? But Jesus would know they were not stones,that in fact they were "bread" - they were people with purpose, inherent worth, meaning and power; they had simply forgotten, or perhaps never known, they had that kind of value. Jesus would not have to "change them " but rather would want to help them see their own beauty and inner strength, to see that they were not "stones" but nourishing "bread" for others. The second temptation - jumping off a high place - was easy to imagine and I could see Jesus scaling one of the many church spires while a crowd gathered on the street wondering if he would jump. In that neighborhood such a spectacle could have easily been something to talk about; but Jesus resisted the urge to be such a spectacle.

The third and final temptation (where Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world) required that I get in my car and drive up a large hill above the city overlooking the entire region for 20-30 miles. I imagined Satan offering Jesus power over all that he could see in exchange for paying homage to him instead of God. From on top of that hill I felt the emptiness of power corrupted by greed and self-centeredness, things we see nearly every day in corporate and political realms. I realized if Jesus had gone with Satan's ploy, his "power" would have been instantly corrupted and therefore made destructive. Imagining myself in the place of Jesus, I could sense that domination power would not significantly tempt him, a power that was "high and lifted up" designed to control people. Instead, I imagined Jesus would want to be back on the street and in the neighborhood with folks, sharing their struggles, hearing their stories, and being with them in their lives; leading by serving rather than by dominating, exercising his ability to help people see their inherent beauty and God-given power. In the end the Jesus I saw in Reading was not a typical power broker, but one who came to "dwell among us" as the gospel writer John so clearly reminds us.

As I drove back to the retreat center late that afternoon, I was spiritually energized in a way I had not been in a long time. By taking the Bible reading approaches of Ignatius and Augustine with me into the city, I saw Jesus among the good folks of Reading in a fresh and renewing way. I left the city that day with a deep sense of connection to the people there and the presence of Jesus among them. On that day through silent observation and active imagination I saw,heard and felt the presence of Jesus in a Reading  neighborhood in and around South 10th St.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Seven Days of Silence

I am not what people would refer to the “strong, silent type.” Yet for seven days from June 25 – to July 1 I participated in a silent retreat conducted by the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA. Last fall I volunteered to be part of a study being conducted by Dr. Andrew Newberg of Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia who is doing research on the relationship between spiritual practices and brain function. Dr. Newberg paid for my retreat in exchange for having my brain scanned (some would say “having my head examined”) before and after the experience. While the brain scans were an experience in themselves that required a fair amount of spiritual fortitude (I am thankful for having learned “yoga breathing”), the experience of living in silence for a week together with 30 other people was also informative and at times stressful.I also committed myself to be “off the grid” in the sense that I did not read or send emails, so I was not communicating with folks off campus either.

The retreat was “directed” which meant that we were being led through a series of “spiritual exercises” developed by Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuit Order, designed to develop and deepen one’s spiritual life. The full slate of Ignatian Exercises takes 30+ days, so we were given sort of an “Ignatian sampler” of various ways of praying, reading the Bible, and thinking about ourselves in relationship to God. I had never done anything like this, and yet I found that many of the exercises I was asked to do were similar to ways I had learned to pray or read the Bible in other settings. So though the overall feel of the Center and the retreat was very Roman Catholic (which I am very not), there were several points of connection to my own attempts at practicing and living out spiritual disciplines. One thing about Ignatius I found particularly helpful is that he thought of himself as a “contemplative in action,” and so instead of inviting one to withdraw from the world, he invites people to engage the world in and through one’s spiritual practice; I resonated deeply with that approach.

Now some people might relish the idea of being in a situation where you don’t have to talk to anybody as nothing short of wonderful. While at first I was relieved to not have to make the kind of small talk that usually happens at the beginning of a workshop or a conference, after about a day the silence started to get to me. I wanted to ask people questions, see what they were reading, and generally make the small talk 24 hours earlier I was relieved not to have to do. I should note that each morning I met with a spiritual director named Bruce with whom I could talk, and I expressed this frustration with him. Bruce just listened to my concerns, smiled and then gave me the exercises I was to do that day and I was sent into another 23 hours of silence on my own.  By day three, I was feeling bored, and by day four I wondered if I should just call it quits. I did not sleep well, and I was in constant motion, trying to keep myself  busy, and frankly not feeling all that spiritual. 

Because I did not know anyone, I began giving them names in my mind. “Birdman” was a guy who before we went into silence shared that he experienced God in the singing of the birds; “Glider” was a woman who seemed just glide as she walked; “Coach” was a husky, short haired woman with a prosthetic leg, but who looked like she had been quite an athlete in her day; “Blindman” was in fact a blind guy; and “Distinguished” was a debonair gray-haired guy who always read a book at meals, and wore a shirt from a different university every day. Heaven knows, what names they gave me with Gandhi t- shirt, and my bright orange bike jersey.

Through it all, I realized that for me so much of my spirituality is tied to my relationships to and interaction with other people. While at different times in my life, I have tried meditation, centering prayer, lectio divina and other forms of inward-focus spiritual disciplines (I even was “a charismatic” for a while in the 1980’s), I have always come back to the fact that God seems most present to me in the midst of activities directed at working for social justice with other people engaged in those activities. For instance, when asked by Bruce to share some of my “peak” spiritual experiences, I told him about my arrest as part of civil disobedience action in 2009, and my participation in the 2010 U.S. Social Forum in Detroit; not exactly what I think he expected.

Ironically and coincidentally, while I was on retreat, the world and the nation experienced some ground-breaking and tragic events. The Supreme Court Decisions on gay marriage and supporting the Affordable Care Act, the bombings in Tunisia, France and Kuwait, Pres. Obama’s “Amazing Grace” eulogy at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral, and the burning of several African American churches, all occurred the week I was on retreat. I read of these events and found my heart both broken and inspired, sometimes simultaneously. However, even more than these concerns, my heart, mind and prayer was focused on the debate taking place in the Pennsylvania capitol over the state budget and funds to be allocated for public education funding, an issue and an effort I have been deeply involved with. I will say more about this particular aspect of my retreat in subsequent blog, but the deep need to pray for a broken and hurting world impressed itself upon me.

In the end I got used to the silence in that it allowed and forced me to pay attention to the world inside and around me. I don’t know if the silence itself was the means to this awareness, but simply being in a place where one’s every need is provided in a comfortable and safe manner, allowed me to focus in a way that is often not possible in my day-to-day life. So when I finally drove home last Wednesday night, I did not turn on the radio or listen to anything except the wheels of my car on the road. As I got closer to home, I was not sure what to say, but when I arrived, and as Cynthia and I talked, words slowly came. Yet even these few days later, there is within in me a place of calm silence that still seeks to pay attention, to listen, to empathize and to be present in a way I think would make Ignatius proud.