Reflections on becoming a community in mission that embodies a way of seeing, doing and being, that frees us to do things we never thought possible.
How can we become contemplative activists who help create cities of peace for all people?
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and the princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
Howard Thurman | Howard Thurman Archives
Notes from the Underground
An Open Letter to the Community around this year’s theme of Contemplative Action.
Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily.
I’d like to introduce this year’s theme by sharing a metaphor from Alcoholics Anonymous. Fair warning - it’s a bit earthy, which is one of the things I love about AA.
AA is relentless in its commitment to keeping it real. Their model of community is so darn incarnational. It is perhaps the best model of church to emerge from the 20th century. They gather in great need, engage without judgement, tell each other the truth in love, practice hospitality for all, and because they are dealing with such serious stuff, refuse to take themselves seriously. It was AA who modeled for the institutional church, a spirituality of imperfection, which can tolerate just about anything except for pretense and fake goodery. At the base of it all is a way of seeing, born of compassion that frees its members to become more human. If that’s not contemplative action, I don’t know what is.
I am told by trusted sources (thanks Ron), that those who remain faithful to their sobriety will eventually hear a loud popping sound – like the sound we make when we put our finger inside our cheek and pop it. Try it. It’s actually quite fun. Seriously…try it.
Can you hear it?
Like the rest of us, it takes a while for most AA members to hear that sound, but eventually they do. When they finally hear it, it’s a holy and joyous occasion – one worthy of great celebration. Upon hearing the sound, they are told (usually by their sponsor with a big smile) that the great popping sound is the sound of their head coming out of their ass.
I find this delightfully playful, painfully honest, amazingly hopeful, and very funny.
I have heard the popping sound many times in my life. Sometimes daily. A long stretch without that glorious noise is the sign of serious trouble. The popping sound is stupendously good news, especially for those of us who have spent years forcibly denying, suppressing, forgetting, and numbing ourselves to death with work, play, money, food, or worst of all, fake goodness that is so often associated with us religious types. To those of us who know the path of fakery, the popping sound is a huge and welcome relief that signals the possibility that we might authentically inhabit our own humanity and perhaps be a position to call forth the humanity of others.
Theologians who prefer less earthy images talk about “felix culpa.” Felix culpa is Latin for “happy fault.” The happy fault is the joyful discovery of being forgiven, which is the massively unexpected consequence for having fallen in the first place. The terrible thing (i.e. humanity’s sin, or having our head up our own ass) turns out to be an occasion for a huge celebration.
Felix culpa is a weird celebration for sure – one that always begins with that grace-filled popping sound.
So, why this metaphor now?
As you know, each year we choose a theme to sit in. Last year we explored the theme “Community in Mission”. It was born out of a conversation with Tim Merrill and Ruben Ortiz in a pizzeria in Philadelphia. It led to the re-opening of the order. The year before that we explored, “Impossibility to Responsibility”. It made our commitment to gender equity real and concrete. This year our theme is "Contemplative Action".
We chose this theme because in order for us to be a community in mission that forms leaders to do things they never thought possible, we must continue to evolve in our vocation. Our cities are desperate for leaders who are intimately acquainted with the celebration I am trying to describe. Such leaders are contemplative activists. It’s a term thrown around a lot these days, but I can’t think of a better one and I think it’s worth exploring.
The volatile climate of our cities, stoked by social, religious, economic and political polarization on both the left and right continues to intensify. It has made this theme all the more vital. Yes, our cities need prophets who can name our faults, but finger wagging prophets telling us what’s wrong are not enough. We need contemplative activists who can show us another way.
Jesus, along with contemplative activists like Dororthy Day, Howard Thurman, and a bunch of wonderful models throughout history, show us it's possible to stand in radical solidarity with the problem itself. From that place we can call forth something more whole and more human on all sides that is not bound by the dualistic, win/lose mind that created the problem in the first place. The contemplative activist shows us it’s possible to act without “re-acting” and to do so with courage, creativity and compassion. I am convinced that it is the contemplative activists who will co-create cities of peace for all people where everyone belongs.
In 2021 we will explore this gift, but the first step is simply to hear that glorious popping sound. Without that sound, we run the huge risk of building fake goodness that leaves us pretending to be something we are not.
So, there it is. The contemplative journey begins where all good journeys begin, with that wonderful, glorious, grace-filled popping sound. It’s not just the sound a champagne bottle makes when it’s being uncorked at a celebration. It is the sound of something even more glorious. It is the sound of sweet liberation on our way to becoming fully human.
May this year be filled with lots and lots of popping sounds.
Wait, I think I just heard another one 🙂
a Biblical reflection on this year’s theme of Contemplative Action.
Word from below
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Christians worldwide will enter into a heightened time (40 days) of prayer, reflection, and spiritual companionship with Jesus to the Resurrection by way of the cross. Here at Street Psalms, we are grateful for this annual pilgrimage that awakens our heart to its deepest desire.
Given the events of the past year, perhaps the thought of entering any kind of spiritual pilgrimage that includes a fast strikes you as absurd. Perhaps you have reached your limit. If so, you are not alone. And yet, it seems equally absurd to deny the moment we are in and try to manufacture an extended Mardi Gras to numb the pain.
Something about this moment reminds me of the invitation of Howard Thurman, who was the unofficial pastor to the Civil Rights Movement. Given the high stakes of the movement, he would insist that the leaders of the movement travel the inward journey, knowing full well its dangers and lifegiving potential.
Thurman was a contemplative activist through and through. He recognized that direct encounter with God and direct action with humanity is where the Gospel comes alive. Encounter and action is the way of Jesus.
Thurman was adamant that in order to act justly in an unjust world, without reacting, each of us must find “the sound of the genuine” inside ourselves. And then pair that with the sound of the genuine in others, especially those whose “backs are against the wall.” That’s how we make great music. Here is how Thurman describes it.
Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear, and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.
To find that sound, Thurman spoke of traveling the vast “sea within.” In that sea is an island and on that island is an altar protected by an angel with a flaming sword. On that altar is where we discover our “crucial link with the Eternal,” our deepest desire, the sound of the genuine.
In my experience, traveling the inward sea of chaos to the altar of the authentic is not for the faint of heart. This is especially true given that the sound of the genuine is protected by the flaming swords. It’s not clear exactly what Thurman had in mind here, but these swords seem a lot like the work of a frightened ego that will go to any length to protect its precious “treasure.”
This all sounds a lot like the Lenten journey to me. It is the journey of every person who wants to become fully human and it’s not without a price. Jesus says it unsparingly, “those who lose their life (psychen) will find it” (Matt. 10:39). He is not referring here to the physical loss of life or martyrdom. He is referring to the loss of our “psyche,” what Freud would call the ego, or Jung would call it the "shadow" or Merton would call the "false self". It’s the fake self that we agree to play in exchange for some kind of fake acceptance from those who are incapable of giving it. Regardless of what we call it, it’s killing us, and it’s that to which we must die if we want to truly live.
Perhaps you are wondering if the sound of the genuine is really worth all this, especially after all that we’ve gone through this past year. It’s a fair question and I don’t blame you if you choose to sit this one out. All I can say is, when we refuse this journey we set up the conditions for…well…our current situation, where we hear just about everything except the sound of the genuine.
If Jesus could say to his disciples, “follow me,” and Thurman could insist that Martin Luther King Jr. make the journey, then perhaps we too will be well served by joining in. Besides, the world could really use some great music about now.
We were slightly buzzed from the secondhand marijuana smoke in a gang prison in Guatemala. After an hour of conversation with the inmates we invited the kids (they looked so young!) to breathe God’s name, YHWH. We weren’t sure if it was the smoke or the prayer, but their faces changed, relaxed. For a brief moment we did not see the tattooed faces of violent men, but the innocent faces of young boys — the beautiful sons of loving mothers breathing the name of God. Watching a son or daughter take their first breath is… breathtaking. A person who lives to be 80 years old will take an average of 843,296,000 breaths in their lifetime. Most of the young men that breathed God’s name that day will not live to be 80.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us because she has anointed us to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
We pray all of this in the name of the Father who is for us, the Son who is with us, and the Spirit who unites us all in the never-ending dance of Love. Amen.
Krista Tippett interviews Harold Moss III on the contributions of Howard Thurman.
Gregory Ellison II reflects on Howard Thurman’s metaphor of the Inward Sea.