Episode 1: Seeking Silence

This is the first in a series of post sharing what I’ve learned from God and from a half dozen or so spiritual friends – who just happen to live inside a state prison. My hope is that you will learn something too.

“Deep Breath “ by Melanie Weidner

It began with shift change – staff moving about, exchanging keys and information, reciting and confirming institutional check-lists, radios steadily chattering. Next came the call-out for gym. A hundred or more bored and restless men, eager to burn off some energy and escape confinement through movement and sweat – hustling down the long hallway outside of the chapel.

The prison chapel is on the main hall of Mark Lutterell Transition Center. The chapel wall along that hallway iss ½ Plexiglas and ½ wire mesh. Needless to say, our first attempt at contemplative prayer was not going to be surrounded by silence. No, our silence was pierced by clanging prison doors, shouting staff, and the voices of men eager for the brief freedom to move and be, to think about anything besides confinement.

I can safely say that, in our first attempt a 20 minutes of contemplative prayer, there were never more than a few seconds of exterior silence. To begin with, I was uncertain how the men in our spiritual formation group, Breathing Under Water, would respond to contemplative prayer.

My doubts multiplied as my partner in ministry, Mike, shouted instructions over the din of prison life, “Just let the silence surround you. Tune out all of the outside noise and try and let go of the interior noise.” Yeah, right.

I wasted my prayer time worrying about the experience the thirteen men in our group might – or might not – be having. Once Mike ended our contemplative time by quietly reciting The Lord’s Prayer, I quickly discovered just how wasted my time was – and just how fruitful that time was for most in our group.

“It’s not easy, is it?” asked Mike.

“No, no it’s not easy,” replied Anthony, “but it is worth it.”

“Tells us what you mean when you say, ‘it’s worth it’ Anthony.”

Anthony went on to describe a powerful experience of the Divine, buffeted by the frustrations of the prison ecosystem. An ecosystem still very foreign and unfamiliar to me but an ecosystem Anthony knows intimately after 9 years of incarceration.

“Even with all that noise in the hallway, I found some silent space inside me. It’s always loud in here, 24/7. Even when I have my earbuds in and toilet paper in my ears, this place is loud,” shared Anthony.

“Tell us how you got past all the noise Anthony,” Mike prodded.

“Well, I just did. I don’t know how I did – I just did. After all this time I guess I’ve learned to tune out the racket in here and, somehow, what I’ve learned helped me to pray – or to listen, or is it prayer?”

As the other men responded to Anthony, I discovered that prison life had given most of them a gift I had worked hard for over the past 5 – 6 years – worked for but never received. Contemplative prayer was a spiritual practice I longed to know, but a practice that I struggled to live in to. It’s not the externals that keep me away from the silence – it is the internal noise.

I was so frustrated by my past, failed attempts at contemplative prayer that I knew – when I realized how fruitful this practice might be for men in prison -that I had to find a partner with more experience and more success than me to teach us this practice.

Turns out, my dear friend Mike is the perfect teacher. His 12 plus years of teaching contemplative prayer practices – coupled with his many more years of practicing contemplative prayer – afford Mike the patience and insight required to offer the gift of contemplative prayer to our group.

The reflections of the first experiences shared by the men in our group ranged from the profound to the expected. Anthony was able to rest in silence – at least for part of the session. Dennis had a powerful visual experience, as did Will. Ben was obviously, deeply touched, but he couldn’t articulate his experience. And yes, 2 or three of us were frustrated in our attempts, and at least 1 person confessed to falling asleep.

I was in awe!

I never would have thought that I would have to go to prison – albeit for just 2 hours a week on Monday nights – to learn contemplative prayer. Never, ever would I have thought that the men I was there to teach spiritual formation, would end up teaching me – not just about contemplative prayer but also about the depths of Christian spirituality and the power of true faith.

This group formed after I witnessed a need at MLTC for spiritual formation in the faith journeys of the men living there. Lots of jailhouse preachers show up weekly to lead emotionally charged worship services marked by loud music and sermons filled with shame and guilt.

Plenty of well-meaning volunteers lead weekly Bible studies littered with bad theology, more shame and guilt, and ready reminders of the costs that come with the mistakes that landed these men in prison.

I – nor anyone else – need to remind these men of their mistakes. They live with those mistakes every minute of every day. The institution, and everyone associated with it, completely define these men by the mistakes they’ve made. Their mistakes are printed on their backs, “Tennessee Department of Corrections, INMATE.” Their mistakes are evidenced in the tears of children, wives, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and grandmothers at the end of weekly visits.

No, nobody needs to heap anymore guilt or shame on these men – they have gotten pretty good at doing that themselves. What they need is a shovel – a spiritual tool to dig out from under the shame and guilt life has heaped on them.

The Holy Spirit gave me the idea that journeying with these men through Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water, might provide the shovel or spiritual tool needed for to dig out from under shame and guilt – it had helped me when I was living into recovery.

And, as to be expected, the Holy Spirit was right.

To Be Continued

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God’s Subversive Imagination

I feel I have long been attuned to God’s subversive imagination. I remember being in Church as a child and teenager and thinking to myself:  Is this it? Is all this fuss about nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts? Is it only about not going to hell, and nothing about making the here and now more heavenly?

In my years away from the Church, my subversive side grew and one of my greatest fears in being called back home and into a community of faith was that I would have to let go of the subversive gifts God had given me. Thankfully, God led me to a Church that tolerated subversive imagination and a Pastor that encouraged it!

When I answered the call to ministry, I worried again that my subversive ideas of the Kingdom of God would limit my effectiveness. I worried that I would have to hide my beliefs. I was appointed to two small country churches that I knew would never quite get me – and they didn’t. I saw myself as a missionary to the comfortable, to those convinced of their view of faith, politics, race, and American exceptionalism. It was rough. I was in a hurry and pushed to change things before I had even begun to understand hearts and minds, before I was able to invite the Holy Spirit in to do the work of transformation of those hardened hearts and closed minds.

In January of 2015 I spent some time in St. Louis and Ferguson in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown. It was a J-Term immersion class and we were truly immersed. We met and heard the stories of women and men in the midst of a theological struggle sparked by the murder of a young black man and fueled by decades of institutional racism and oppression. I learned so much – about God, about myself, and about the reality of oppression and the struggle to survive.

One voice, that of a five-foot one-inch white female AME Pastor, stood out for me. Reverend Renita Marie Green was married to an African American AME Pastor and had three teenage children. She was able to narrate the complexities of the times in a way I could understand. I explained to Pastor Renita the context in which I served – two small, highly conservative, quietly racist, economically privileged white churches in a suburb of maybe the most racially divided city in the world – my hometown – Memphis, Tennessee.

My question to Pastor Renita was, “How can I translate everything God has shown me here to people who refuse to listen?”

In that time in Ferguson, the Gospels had come alive and were being lived out on the streets, in the bars, on the campus of Eden Theological Seminary, and in the churches. Walking in that space was like walking through a pop-up-book of the Gospels.

The Pharisees were there, religious elite who said, “slow down, pray, wait and see what God will do.” The Romans were there, wearing black uniforms, marching in mass with shields and batons, buttressed by steel chariots of war. The “crowd” as Mark describes them were there – afraid yet fed up with the status quo, angry, hurt, and eager for real change.

Jesus was there too—once, in the form of a grandmother who felt called to feed the people. Mamma G wasn’t much for protesting, but she would prepare meals, offer water, mend wounds, dry tears, and pray with the freedom fighters. Once again, Jesus was there in the form of a black man from Zent, Arkansas who wore a clergy collar and cloak, had waist length dreadlocks, and spoke with the authenticity of teacher, the truth-telling passion of a prophet, and the rhythm of a blues musician.

How was I to translate all God allowed me to see to my people, privileged white Christians, who refused to listen or to see anything other than their opinions and bigotry, who had no curiosity for truth?

“Don’t worry, baby,” Pastor Renita said, “You’re anointed and consumed by the Holy Spirit. You go home and preach the Gospel and the Holy Spirit will make sure they hear what God has to say – that’s what speaking in tongues is, trusting the Spirit to shape the words and touch folk’s hearts.”

I’ve gotten in trouble more than once with my parishioners because of my justice work. I was once captured by a television news camera crew in a crowd shot smiling and singing at a Black Lives Matter rally. One of my parishioners came to me and said, “You can’t do that. You’re ruining the good work you’ve done here by taking part in crap like that. Why would you go to a Black Lives Matter protest?”

“Well,” was my response, “it wasn’t a protest, but a rally and I was there to listen. If we don’t listen to people who are hurting how can we respond to them?”
“I don’t need to listen to those people,” was his response. “I know what they are saying and it’s wrong. They’re just making excuses for sinful behavior. Promise me you won’t do that again – please.”

A few months later, the media again photographed me at a rally. It wasn’t a BLM rally but I was standing next to a young mother holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign. The same man came to me, even more angry this time. “What the hell were you doing this time, listening again? Haven’t you heard enough?”

“No,” I said. “I listened the last time you saw me on the news, and several times since. What I heard when I listened to the hearts of oppressed persons compelled me to go back and do something – whatever they asked of me – to help.”

While my friend was walking away, shaking his head, the words of a protest song rang in my ears:  I heard my brother crying ‘I can’t breathe’
                 I came to the struggle and now ‘I can’t leave’

In worship about three weeks ago, during the Prayers of the People, my friend spoke up and asked that we pray for our Hispanic neighbors and the Dreamers. This was huge. This was God.

I do believe my friend is learning to listen. It doesn’t erase the sin of racism he holds so tightly to, but it does show how much the Spirit can do when we are persistently subversive. When we decide that – if things are going to change – we must remain in community with those we don’t or can’t understand or agree with. And hope that they learn to listen.

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