Learning: Inward and Outward
Like almost everyone who has been earnest in this way of living life with God, we have gone through periods of intense activism and optimism, times of settling centeredness and comfort, and seasons of palpable dryness and anxiety. There is no way to predict these things. As for action, sometimes what we do brings the expected results. And then there are the exceptions that ring with regularity when “stuck in the mud” is the best descriptor. On contemplation: it would be easy to assume that the time we sit down to enter into God’s silence would be the time for easy rest. But often it feels like time in the dentist’s chair coupled with the discomfort of a monkey mind jumping from tree to tree. Even more peculiarly, the silence sometimes brings hope and a sense of accomplishment, and the day of action offers up the fruit of rest and ease. The ways God works with us defy expectations.
When we do our best to live in both contemplation and action, our activities change our prayers, and our prayers alter our activities. While the causes for and words to describe this process are countless, we offer three simple ways of describing this intersection of contemplation and action, including a few suggestions for next steps.
Relocating: Entering Active-Contemplative Territory
If an actor wants to succeed in the movies, she moves to Hollywood. If a sommelier seeks knowledge of wine making, a good place to live is France. If a Christian would like to be formed in the fullness of the life of God, relocation is almost inevitable. To be near what we hope to become is a key driver for integrating the active and contemplative life. If we want to become compassionate, we need to be near those who show compassion. If we want to become reflective, we need to be near those who spend time in reflection. Or even better, we need to hang out with those who do both.
We are not all called to move to the mission field. Some of us may be asked to stay in or return to familiar places or to locate ourselves in the culture of our origins. This relocation within every day, average living is no less valuable for the life of the soul and may be even more helpful when relocation lacks heroics. For sure, we are called to be transformed, and it is quite likely that we will not be challenged to new ways of being with ourselves and others unless we relocate—mentally, physically, or both. Any relocation will necessitate a reprioritization and reallocation of our time and money, which will have both inner and outer expressions.
Jesus is the model for relocation, of course. He desired to identify with humanity so fully that he became one of us: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message)Scripture quotations marked (The Message) are from The Message by Eugene H. Peterson, copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group. All rights reserved.. As a result of this process, “God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth— even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11, The Message). And as we relocate, we, too, will be changed.
My own geographic and cultural relocation from small town Kansas to urban Philadelphia has been cause for fruitful reflection. Like short-term missionaries to Africa or Central America or other places outside of comfort zones, I was eager to work for change and to bring Gospel light to the situations I was entering. I figured that with passion, expertise, and two years of graduate school, I would be well equipped to address most of the primary challenges of West Philadelphia! After spending time in the neighborhood, I came to at least two realizations, however: (1) I could not contribute to meaningful, long-term change unless I relocated permanently to West Philadelphia, and (2) a lot of people were already working for the shalom that God has in mind, and I could partner with them. Over time I realized that the call to be part of this neighborhood, if only for a time, needed to be rooted in prayer, as did my continuing response over the next few years to what could have been a disappointment but instead turned into a significant life-learning. West Philadelphia taught me about the interplay between action and contemplation, as contemplation had been present in the midst of active relocation.
One way to explore the opportunity for relocating and its impact on the active-contemplative life is to get to know someone who is quite different ethnically or temperamentally and try to see life from that person’s perspective. Another is to spend time with a story in the Bible (or reading a similar work of fiction or nonfiction) that includes significant transition. The book of Exodus in the Old Testament and the early Christian community in the New Testament come to mind, as do books like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions. Even movies such as Brother Sun, Sister Moon and City of God are helpful tools for prompting the kinds of questions that result in internal “relocation.”
Listening: Contemplating Is Engaging
While a more intentional life with God may begin in action, it quickly turns to contemplation, at least as regards our plans and agendas. Listening is the first step in learning about all the possibilities that God has before us. Our own lives in ministry and action have confirmed this, not only for the sake of ourselves but also for the sake of people around us. Most of us come to relationships with our own agenda and hope for certain outcomes. It’s helpful, however, to realize that our lives are not our own, that we are living for both others and ourselves. The only way to find out how we can do this together is to begin with questions and to continue by listening. We begin with an action, but it is actually an invitation, a question, a request for the thoughts and impressions of another. And then we wait with open ears. In so doing, we recognize God’s presence in each encounter and conversation, acknowledging a space where there is a different kind of triumvirate: God, you, and me.
Taking a contemplative approach toward conversation has transformational potential for both participants and the larger fellowship. More than once we have heard of communities that have suffered from the activism of those bent on doing first and listening later. During my graduate studies I heard of a city agency that built a multi-million-dollar health care facility for a low-income neighborhood. Following the grand opening, the number of patients was sparse. Wondering what tweaks they could make to improve the number of users, officials thought, “Why don’t we ask the neighbors?” The response: “We like to take care of ourselves. No doctors are necessary. We didn’t want a medical clinic. We want improved street lights so that we can visit one another at night in safety.” If only these officials had asked first and acted second, they could have truly met people’s needs and saved a lot of money!
Of course, we can move into this direction of listening first and speaking second in many ways. One is to approach the Bible from a contemplative perspective. For example, take a favorite passage of Scripture and spend at least six days with it. Or six weeks. Or six months. Sit with it and find all the ways God speaks to you through it as you live the story. Another way is to approach each non-utilitarian conversation with a spirit of inquisitiveness. Try doing this for a full day. After you ask a question, engage your attention and truly hear the words spoken, as opposed to thinking about how to reply. This may lead to some awk-ward silence, which becomes space for the Holy Spirit to speak. “When we are too quick to speak, we may cut off conversation that could be sacred, holy sharing of the deepest kind. So probably a good rule of thumb would be—when we do not know what to say, say nothing,” notes Sarah Butler Berlin.Sarah Butler Berlin, Contemplative Compassion (Englewood, CO: RENOVARÉ, 2009), 34.