Political Anxiety and Centering Prayer

by Robin Sandbothe

In the first class of a spiritual formation certificate program which I’m about to complete, we were going around the room introducing ourselves. I happened to be sitting next to Kim, with whom for this course I later became partnered as “spiritual friend.” Kim, I learned, self-identified as genderqueer and used the pronoun “they.” As the class continued their introductions, a gentleman sitting a couple of people over from us gave his name, and as he gave a bit more information about himself, it became clear that his religious tradition was of a conservative theological persuasion. I remember Kim leaning over and saying to me, sotto voce, “I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m going to hell.”

I’m pretty sure there are folks on both sides of the current political divide who believe anyone who identifies as a part of the LGBTQIA community, as I do, is going to hell. While the political – and religious – climate has improved for my community in the past few years with the legalization of same-sex marriage, there is still quite a bit of fear that these improvements might be rolled back. We have a lot of vested interest in the candidates’ platforms related to this issue, and in how their base views those issues as well.

My wife and I were married last year after over twelve years of being partnered – mostly secretly. It has been such a joy (and relief) to be able to claim one another and to live openly as a couple. And, yet, we are also pursuing powers of attorney – medical and legal – for one another to ensure that if our legal status as a married couple were to be called into question – should things change in our country after this election cycle, for instance – we wouldn’t have to worry about our right to make legal decisions for one another, if needed. And that’s only one level of discrimination about which we have concerns.

Being a part of the LGBTQIA community is not all of who I am, of course, nor do I represent all of the viewpoints of that community. While my situation has been improved, my transgender friends continue to face so much more discrimination than I ever have, for instance.  There are so many other anxiety-producing issues which have contributed to the divisiveness we’re experiencing in the U.S., as well – systemic racism, the climate crisis, healthcare disparities, to name a few. In addition, there are personal issues which can keep me up late at night, like the recent cancer scare with my dad. And I haven’t even mentioned the extra layer of anxiety produced by the pandemic and how it has become politicized.

I’m certain I am not the only one dealing with sleepless nights.

My most recent, and final, course for my certificate program was on the practice of centering prayer.  It is perhaps no surprise that a director of seminary relations and co-pastor would suggest the efficacy of practicing prayer in such a time as this. What I’ve discovered, though, is that when consistently practicing centering prayer, the fruits of the Spirit become more evident in your life – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  While my life has felt like a rollercoaster lately – much of it on the descent which is rapid and leaves my stomach behind, not in a good way – I am weathering that storm. I believe that is so because the practice of centering prayer grounds us, gives us peace in the midst of the storm.

I have also discovered that there is no right way to do centering prayer. The point of it is simply to let go of everything else and simply rest in God’s presence. Those who have been practicing centering prayer for a while say that it’s good to do this a couple of times a day for about 20 minutes each time.

In the preface to the second edition of Call to the Center: The Gospel’s Invitation to Deeper Prayer, author M. Basil Pennington says that Gandhi believed that if 1% of the population of South Africa would practice meditation on a daily basis, there would be peace. What if 1% of the people of the U.S. would practice centering prayer even once a day for 20 minutes (or 10, or even 5)? Would the division we are experiencing melt away? Would systemic racism become systemic care for one another? Would the climate crisis become climate recovery?

The practice of centering prayer might very well be the most transformative practice of prayer a Christian citizen could practice. Thomas Merton, who wrote books on the practice said, “We do not want to be beginners [at prayer], but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!” If Merton did not consider himself an expert, then being an expert is not necessary in the practice of centering prayer. Anyone can do it.

All we need to do is find an alert, comfortable position, quiet ourselves, and open ourselves to God’s presence. As thoughts intrude, as awareness of our surroundings draws our attention away, we simply let them go.  We should pick a word that will help lead us back into God’s presence – perhaps a name for God or a word that describes who God is for us, like “love” or “peace.” Anytime we find ourselves getting back into our head, that word will help us move back into our heart, to the place deep within us where God dwells. Simply rest in God’s presence for 5, 10, 20 minutes. Try it twice a day for the next month or so. Find others who would commit to joining you, as all faith practices done in community provide support, encouragement, and accountability. Finally, be gentle with yourself. This practice is as grace-filled as the God with whom we long to spend time and who longs to spend time with us.

Who knows what impact we might have on our families, our communities, our divided nation.

For more about this practice, read the book mentioned above by Pennington or one of these resources:

The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice by Cynthia Bourgeault

Finding Grace at the Center by Thomas E. Clarke, Thomas Keating, & M Basil Pennington

Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina by Thelma Hall

The Better Part: Stages of Contemplative Living by Thomas Keating

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman

Armchair Mystic: Easing into Contemplative Prayer by Mark E. Thibodeaux

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourteenth in a series of opinion articles on “Beyond the Divisions: Faith and Politics 2020.” We invite readers to submit perspectives of their own to ghunt@cbts.edu for possible inclusion in the blog series.

Rev. Robin Sandbothe serves as the Director of Seminary Relations at Central Baptist Theological Seminary (22 years). Ordained as a Baptist minister, Sandbothe is also currently the co-pastor for Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and recently joined the team of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. She co-authored with Dr. Ircel Harrison Creating a Rule of Life:  A Transforming Church Resource from Pinnacle Leadership Press. This year she is completing a certificate in spiritual formation from Columbia Theological Seminary. Robin lives with her wife Connie in Gladstone, Missouri.

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