For a Christian, Jesus is the man in whom it has indeed become manifest that revolution and conversion cannot be separated in the search for experiential transcendence. His appearance in our midst has made it undeniably clear that changing the human heart and changing human society are not separate tasks, but are as interconnected as the two beams of the cross. (Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer.)
HONG KONG — The Hong Kong police moved swiftly to enforce China’s new national security rules with the first arrests under the law, as the city immediately felt the chilling effect of Beijing’s offensive to quash dissent in the semiautonomous territory. Far-reaching and punitive, the law threatens the freewheeling cultural scene and civil society that make the fabric of life in Hong Kong so distinct from the rest of China. (New York Times 7/1/2020)
In May-June 1989 on a summer Sabbatical to Hong Kong I felt the pain of the pro-democracy movement that ended in despair with the Chinese government bloody crackdown on June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The Chinese people and culture had captured my heart while working among international students on Texas university campuses. It was a dream come true to be in China that quickly turned to getting caught up in the protests for freedom the young people were leading. I was deeply impacted by the pain and despair of the people. One night, on top of the mountain overlooking Hong Kong, I heard the Spirit call me to return to this gateway city to China. I spent two years doing English camps and leading small groups as a university student minister in 1992-3.
One of my partners, who I will call Winnie, became a life-long friend. She has been active in offering both revolution and conversion to her students in remote places in China as well as Hong Kong. This past year as protests and clashes with the government accelerated and freedom was threatened with new restrictive laws, I have once again seen the angst of revolution among my friends. Winnie shared that she was devastated by this latest development making free speech and protest hazardous. She decided to go out for dinner with a friend and saw a painted sign on the brick wall of the pizza place saying: “My heart’s pastoral life.” She told me, “I immediately came out of my cloudy mood, because, yes, to continue the pastoral life you must face the darkness.”
Facing the darkness, disease, despair, (Covid, political unrest) is the anxiety affecting us all, either driving us inward, or pushing us out to seek peace, unity, and community that can make sense of it all. I have personally been up and down emotionally trying to keep socially distant and healthy while living out “my heart’s pastoral life.” As a follower of Christ, the pastoral life is a calling to provide spiritual direction and loving nurture to fellow disciples on a revolutionary journey to change the world. One the other side the pastoral life is also the simplicity and idyllic charm of the mystical life of sheep following a Shepherd, where prayer is the breath of human existence.
The Lord God as our Shepherd in Psalm 23 is the perfect picture of pastoral life, a life in green pastures without want or lack: “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” (Ps 34:10) The Psalmist assures us of God’s guidance, presence, and joy. He leads, restores, is present in darkness, comforts, heals, and provides everything needed for a good and just life.
“You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing. Your beauty and love chase after me every day of my life.” Ps 23:5-6 MSG.
When my friend Winnie shared the simple way the Lord restored her soul with a sign on the wall of the pizza place, the same Spirit refreshed me. Her wake-up call to keep fighting in the darkness, to continue loving with her heart’s pastoral life went around the world in an instant, as the same Lord, the same Spirit revived my drooping head and filled my cup. Fear was dispelled and the beauty of God caught me: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
In this season of unrest and revolution there is a call, a demand for freedom, for change that allows for dignity, diversity, and equality. Yet the change in human society cannot come about without the conversion of the human heart through confession, forgiveness, reconciliation. As Henri Nouwen says, “Therefore every real revolutionary is challenged to be a mystic at heart…to bring about radical change. No mystic can prevent himself from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection he will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionary can avoid facing his own human condition, since in the midst of his struggle for a new world he will find that he is also fighting his own reactionary fears and false ambitions. The mystic as well as the revolutionary has to cut loose from his selfish needs for a safe and protected existences and has to face without fear the miserable condition of himself and his world.”
Practice Revolutionary Prayer. “Prayer is subversive activity. It involves a more or less open act of defiance against any claim by the current regime…. [As we pray,] slowly but surely, not culture, not family, not government, not job, not even the tyrannous self can stand against the quiet power and creative influence of God’s sovereignty.” (Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor.)
If prayer really is the breath of our pastoral life, and an act of revolution, then let us “pray all the time in the Spirit,” and let us pray what Jesus taught us to pray:
“Your kingdom come, Your will be done.”
Try praying all the time, for everyone and everything in your day…when you stop for a meal or go for a walk, pray out-loud for those you know, those you read about, the politicians, the medical community, the sick, countries and systems, the revolutionaries, the peacemakers. When you watch the news or read on social media, stop and breathe a prayer of peace and justice.
Involve the whole family, especially children who love the routine of prayer at bedtime. Pray the Lord’s prayer or Psalm 23 or any prayer you can memorize and repeat throughout the day when you are on the lake or cooking a meal, or waiting in line.
I find it helpful to pray short breath prayers while swimming laps, driving, exercising, or just sitting still. A breath prayer is saying the first line as you breathe in and exhaling the second line as you breathe out. My favorite is Psalm 56:3 “When I am afraid… I put my trust in you.” (You can change afraid to anxious, sad, or mad)
“The voice of the Lord…is full of majesty and power.”
“Lord Jesus Christ…have mercy on me a sinner.” (You can change me to us or “sinner” to “your beloved child.”)
“O Lord God…let justice roll down like waters.”