In mid-March, all the numbers fell off my calendar and clock as my carefully arranged plans changed in an instant. With the spread and threat of the COVID-19 virus, my sensibly constructed life changed. For the next month, I would watch every single plan change, die, or be reconceived in some way or another. The world had broken open.
I still didn’t understand how much the world had changed. I thought this time was my invitation to Sabbath, as I reread Wayne Muller’s Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. But our God is a God of surprises and soon I was echoing the Psalmist, “Oh Lord, how long must I wait?” Soon this time became a trial. I found myself reading mysteries and watching Netflix instead of taking walks and making room for God. I was losing sight of this time as Sabbath.
“God, this isn’t what you had in mind?” said a chagrined voice inside me. God’s time is not our time, even in Sabbath time. Something broke open again.
Into that blank canvas of my “Sabbath” time, a new scene developed as I, along with much of the rest of the world, witnessed George Floyd being killed by a police officer, someone I assumed would have protected him. For a long time, I had essentially ignored that Black people were being killed across the U.S. by those who were supposed to protect them. Sure, I had done things that now seem antiseptic: written Congress, sent money to the SPLC, and lamented the long string of dead black men and women at the hands of the police. I then went back to business as usual.
But now, my heart had broken open.
This phrase first spoke to me in October 2019 when the Shalem Society chose it for the theme of its fall gathering. The planners borrowed it from Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy. Palmer writes: “But I have choices to make about HOW my heart breaks. Will it break APART into a thousand shards, and perhaps be thrown like a fragment grenade at the ostensible source of my pain? Or will it break OPEN into greater capacity to hold my own and the world’s suffering and joy?”
To me, that whole phrase translates into this: I could deride myself for not doing more to advance the good inherent in all people as I stood with those who were being systematically dehumanized and even killed. I could easily heap guilt upon myself for what former President Obama calls the great sin of our country, slavery. If I did so, that would be the “grenade” thrown into my pain and lead to nothing but guilt.
Or I could do something else. I could let my heart break wide open. I could cry and cry and cry. Which I did. Then I could get up and do what I know to do. Be open to the Presence and listen. What is mine to do? I don’t really know the full answer to that question yet. I have some ideas, but the only thing I know is that I will do what contemplatives are called to do. I will continue to listen, to pray, to open space for the Holy. After all, to listen, pray and open space are most certainly “acts.” They are doing something.
We can choose what to do with the pieces of our hearts that are broken open.
I believe we cannot enact any change without first opening to the ongoing, ever living, loving heart of God. This is the practice of contemplatives. In this practice we choose to live in the love of God, a heart broken open for the love of God.
In the brokenness of life, we don’t observe overwhelming love, we practice it in so many ways, such as serving those on the margins and working to change the systems that caused the marginalization. And we have to keep praying, opening even more to the Love that guides us in every act.
In that Love, I find myself waking up to monumental changes that are needed. Perhaps they all stem from one misconception—we are not acting out God’s will if we don’t truly treat everyone with the deep respect that the Holy demands. God seems to be steadfast in asking me to do what I can to align my values with the call for seeing the Holy in one another, breaking the old patterns of excuses, equivocation, and false innocence.
In Nashville, where I live, people in my neighborhood read the plight of a young Black man who was afraid to walk by himself in his neighborhood, a place where his family had lived for generations. By the next week, over 100 neighbors agreed to begin and continue weekly walks entitled “I Walk with Shaun.” Such an act could be labeled “token,” but not completely. It invites conversation and the beginning of several relationships that are sorely needed in this gentrified neighborhood. I would wish that these neighbors spread this model to other neighborhoods because of its symbolism and opportunity for change.
I don’t need numbers on a calendar or clock to tell me that this time is tinged with God’s deep love as well as with God’s deep call for me to act. I think I did need that sabbatical time to hear the call to bring my contemplative heart to all it encounters.
Some days I wonder if I can open even more to God’s love, and then I sense the offer of a hand, from the One who is walking along beside me, and I take it.
Robbie Clifton Pinter is a Professor of English at Belmont University where she has taught at Belmont since 1984. Her academic interests include Rhetoric and composition, with a specialty in life writing, reflective learning, writing related to spirituality, and using contemplative strategies as pedagogy. She also enjoys teaching writing courses that are embedded in community and social change, such as Writing and Social Change, Environmental Writing, and Writing as Art and Agency. For several years, Robbie co-led Study Abroad trips to Turkey and currently co-leads Study Away trips to the Plains Native American tribes. Robbie also serves as a spiritual director and retreat leader. Her family includes husband Mike, son Nicholas, and the always-loving terrier, Annabelle.
For a growing list of resources for the spiritual work of overcoming racism, we invite you to visit UpperRoom.org/OvercomingRacism.