by Robert Foster
Isaiah 31:1: Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, seeking salvation from horses and putting their trust in numbers of chariots, and riders because they are very strong. But they have not looked for salvation from the Holy One of Israel and they have not sought the LORD.
Around the same time that we learned that our focus during this Lenten season at Oconee Street UMC would be on listening, I received a request to write a little piece on the importance of contemplative prayer in the work of racial justice and reconciliation. I have been contemplating that assignment ever since and have finally had some space to write on the subject this week.
To me, contemplative prayer differs from my regular praying in that, in my regular praying, I tell God about things going on in my life and world and how I wish God would act in each of these circumstances. Contemplative prayer seems to me to reverse this process. In contemplative prayer I listen to what God seems to be telling me in Scripture or perhaps a line from a song or the content of a recent conversation or news about a recent event, and so on, with a commitment to act on what I hear from God. And, just as I find it more difficult to listen than to talk in conversations with family and friends, I find it more difficult to hear what God says to me than to tell God what I want and need from God. Contemplative prayer requires contemplation, slowing down to mull things over, until I finally hear what God has to say to me.
So, even if I have an understanding of contemplative prayer in comparison to my regular prayers, I often do not practice contemplative prayer simply because it takes more time than my regular prayers. Yet, if I am honest, maybe the major reason I do not engage contemplative prayer more regularly is because in contemplative prayer I am more likely to hear God’s demands of me. Emilie Griffin, in her wonderful little book on prayer entitled, Clinging, writes that many of us should admit that a major reason we do not pray, period, is because we have heard stories of someone who was “just praying” and suddenly found themselves selling their home and moving to Madagascar to follow the call of God on their lives. If this can happen during regular prayer, how much more dangerous might contemplative prayer be?! In contemplative prayer I commit myself to listen and then to act on what I hear from God. I can hardly imagine a more foolish act in the known universe.
Which brings me back to Isaiah 31:1. At first glance, maybe God’s simply upset that the people of God seek help from mere mortal like the Egyptians not giving due respect to God. Is the Creator of the Universe and Redeemer of Israel not enough for you? Seriously? But, as we keep reading in the following verses, the prophet takes this passage in a different direction. After reaffirming that the people should turn to God instead of consulting Egypt—or idols of silver and gold (Isa. 31:6-7)—the prophet proclaims a word of assurance:
Behold, a king will reign with social justice and princes will judge uprightly. Every one of them will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm….And the work of the just will be peace…and my people will dwell in peaceful homes and in secure dwellings and in untroubled places of rest. – Isaiah 32:1, 2, 17, 18
According to the prophet Isaiah, the downfall of Israel did not the result from the formation of bad political alliances. No, real problem that precipitated the exile of Israel was that God had hoped to find in Israel justice in the courts and, instead, God found injusticer justice in the streets and, instead, found iniquity (Isa. 5:7). The people of Israel did not need better political alliances. They needed leaders committed to working for justice in all its aspects.
And this is one of the reasons I think contemplative prayer is so important in the work of racial justice and reconciliation: I need God to remind me that the problem does not (solely) lie “out there.” When I stop to listen for God, contemplate what God might be saying to me in a Scripture from the book of Isaiah or in a line from a song by Kendrick Lamar or in a conversation with my friend Broderick or in the chained bodies of black women and men appearing in the local court system, I often enough will hear God speak to me. I hear God telling me to stand up for justice.
God challenges my commitment to ongoing work of racial justice and reconciliation. I hear God telling me, “Go,” use my words, my time, my energy, my monies, my life for the cause of racial justice and reconciliation in the world. To be fair, I often don’t practice contemplative prayer because not because I find it difficult to comprehend or that it takes more time; I simply don’t want God to confront me with my need to change. I would rather just cast aspersions on those people “out there” for their failures in racial justice and reconciliation.
Prayer: Dear LORD, Holy One of Israel, give me courage to stop speaking and, once again, to listen. Tell me what you want me to know, what you would have me to do. Speak, O LORD, for your servant is listening.