Scripture: PSALM 62:5-12
When I was in seminary, the great theologian and writer Henri Nouwen was one of my teachers. His classes were always packed both with both students and with onlookers who simply came to hear him lecture. His teaching was riveting, as some of you may know from his books.
One day, my seminary roommate, Warren Stamp, and I invited Henri over to our dorm room for appetizers and conversation. To set a welcoming mood, we had some music playing softly in the background. As soon as he entered the room, Henri said, “Would you please turn the music off.” As I heard him say sometime later in a class, when he goes to someone’s house, there is so often noise. Music is playing or the TV is on. And for Henri, that noise is a distraction. It keeps us from really focusing on each other and on what’s central. We like being entertained, and we frequently neglect to pay attention to the heart of the matter. Silence: it’s golden. And it’s holy.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence,” says the psalm (62:5). And how often, really, do we do that? How often are we silent and attentive before the Heart of the universe? How often do we put ourselves in thrall to the One who is Source and Destiny, Creator and Sustainer, Alpha and Omega? How often do we cease our busy-ness, and look instead to majesty and mystery for strength and protection and guidance?
And here’s a typical, and somewhat discouraging, example: as I sat down to prepare this sermon, I was shocked to realize that I hadn’t spent any real time in silence—to listen, to attend, to hear something, frankly, other than the sound of my own voice—other than my own thoughts and worries and excitement and preoccupations. “I’ve been busy,” I might well have said to myself during the week. “I have an annual report to prepare and a Spire article to write and a memorial service to plan and lead”—surprisingly, my first Zoom funeral, after all these months of COVID-19—“not only that, but I have this service to plan and lead. I don’t have time to be silent”! I had to laugh—or cry—at the audacity and inanity of what I was doing: preach on silence without being silent! So stop I did. Finally. And it was hard. And it was good.
It’s funny that I would have such a hard time with silence—partly, of course, because I’m a minister. But also because a number of years ago, I wrote words for a hymn, set to a tune that Mozart had written. It was a Christmas hymn, and we’ve sung it here a few times. And this is the way it began: “Stop! Be silent. Listen for the sound/ Of greetings tender and mild. For as you pause and hearken, grace will sure abound. For in the face of all disgrace, you’re God’s own child.” I wrote those words probably twenty years ago, and it’s striking to me that they’re still fresh for me, and I didn’t have to go find them to be able to quote them to you. I wrote those words, and I remember them, because they’re words I still desperately need to hear: Stop! Be silent. And listen for the presence and the unique and subtle voice of the God who walks with us always. Stop! Be silent.
So I took a break after I began this sermon, a break in which I was silent, and NOW what you’re getting is post-silence sermon! That I could be preaching about silence without actually being silent was a vivid demonstration of my resistance to that silence. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. First, as I suggested a moment ago, silence conflicts with the pressure to perform and accomplish and get things done that is always with us. Maybe in retirement that changes, but I’m guessing that, for many of us, it doesn’t. How many times do we hear, “I’m busier in retirement than I was when I was working!” I don’t think our resistance to silence is because we just don’t have time while we’re working. I suspect that resistance is much more related to a cultural way of being. We are shaped to accomplish, to be productive members of society, to work our way through our to-do lists. We’re rewarded for our achievements, for the tasks and duties we complete, likely in every setting of our lives—work, family, neighborhood, whatever: do, do, do!
How often has anyone ever said to you, “I’m glad you stopped working and took a nap; I’m glad you daydreamed; I’m glad you prayed—that you reflected and listened and sought a voice from beyond.” This is not what we’re praised for. We’re commended for shopping and cooking and finishing “honey-do” lists and achieving workplace goals and completing church projects. We’re lauded, in other words, for the tasks we complete. for the service we offered. Prayer? Silence? Not so much.
Not only that, but I’m guessing that many of us are afraid of what we might find in that silence. Maybe we’ll realize how lonely we are. Maybe our regrets will sting us. Maybe we’ll be overrun by anger or resentment or grief. Prayer? Silence? I don’t think so.
Some of the most memorable moments of my life, though, have happened when I did finally stop. Early in my ministry, when Mary and I lived in Vermont and I was serving two churches there, I was trying to prepare a sermon one week, and absolutely nothing was coming to me. Saturday afternoon came, and I had not written a word or had a coherent thought on whatever it was I intended to preach on that week. In desperation, I went to Mary and told her I didn’t know what I was going to do. She said, “Go upstairs and lie down and let whatever is going to come to you come to you. Don’t try to make it happen. Just let it happen.” Because I was at my wits’ end, I did as she suggested, and the sermon came to me.
Now I can’t vouch for quality in the sermon that Sunday. What I can vouch for is trust in a process that is far greater than I am, and a conviction that, with God’s help, something will always be there. One of the gifts of that long-ago day to me is that I no longer worry whether something will be there as I prepare to preach. I simply trust that God will offer something that I couldn’t have dreamt of on my own. As I say, this is not to say anything about the quality of what’s preached. It’s only to say that some word will present itself.
A number of years later, when I was serving a church in Rhode Island, I remember I was feeling depleted, and I decided to take a retreat at a monastery an hour or so away. It was to be twenty-four hours of silence, the first time in my life I had ever spent an extended time in silence. The only break from the silence was in the middle of the retreat, when I was to meet with a spiritual director for an hour. After we had talked for a time, the spiritual director said to me, “What I want you to do is to go outside and spend an hour walking around the grounds. And here’s your assignment: as you walk, I want you to take a step no more than every ten seconds. And I want you just to notice—notice whatever comes to your attention.”
I did as the spiritual director assigned, and I took a step no more frequently than every ten seconds. It was extremely odd and seemed so unnatural. And at the same time, I can still vividly remember the sound of the birds and the beauty of the leaves on the trees and the sight of insects crawling through the grass. I heard car engines in the distance and wind rustling the leaves and a door shutting. Outside my worries and concerns and preoccupations was a whole world God had made to be. And while it wasn’t necessarily stupefyingly gorgeous, as I let this process unfold, most of it was quietly beautiful and alive and pulsing with life and hope. It was a revelation to me. And it happened because I stopped and was silent. It happened because I simply paid attention.
So now I work at spending time every day in a God-directed solitude and quiet. I say “work” because frankly it is work. It takes intention. It takes a decision not to be doing something else. I have to put down the reading or the sudoku puzzle, or I have to turn off the TV, and simply stop. As I say, it doesn’t come naturally. I don’t just fall into it. And I don’t succeed every day. I have to put aside my constant preoccupation with being busy and getting things done; I have to put aside my fear of what might arise in me in that silence, and just stop, and pay attention to God.
For me, it helps to read something as a preparation for that silence. I’ll read something by Henri Nouwen or Sue Monk Kidd or Brother David Steindl-Rast. And I will let that reading redirect my mind and heart, away from the pressures to produce and accomplish, away from my fear and trepidation, and toward the source of light and life and love.
You will have your own ways of doing this. The key, I think, is simply to stop. To be silent. To focus on something besides our own worries and issues and fixations. And above all to trust—to invite God into that space. Thomas Keating who developed the whole notion of centering prayer, says it makes a difference to be intentional about that invitation to God. To trust that, in that intentional silence, God will show up. And the wonder is: she does. God shows up, and often in ways we could not have guessed.
None of this, of course, is intended to replace service and action. Such silent, attentive, contemplative waiting is to enhance the ways we put love into action.
What I’d like to do now, hardly surprisingly, is invite you into a time of slightly extended silence right where you are—a time for you to simply be in the presence of God. I’m going to make some brief suggestions, and together we’re going to trust that God is going to show up. I’m going to guide you into this time of meditation and reflection with a few brief words. If you have been incessantly busy working at your life and making sure everything is right, and if you’ve been worried about what silence might reveal to you, consider this a gift from God: time to invite God in, and simply to bask in God’s heavenly and earthly presence, a time to swim, in other words, in the ocean of grace and favor.
We’re going to engage in three simple steps, each an opportunity to invite the Holy One into our minds and bodies. Each one will begin with some words of invitation. And then each silence will be a minute or so. If you’d like to close your eyes, do so. If it’s more comfortable not to, keep them open.
So first, let’s just breathe together. Be aware of the sensation of being a body, of being a holy body. Take a long, slow breath in, and then slowly let it out. You might want to count to four on the inhale, hold it for a count of four, and breathe out for a count of four. We’re going to do this for a minute. Breathe in that Spirit now. . . .
Now, call to mind something for which you’re grateful. It could be the chair in which you’re sitting. It could be the good night’s sleep you’ve just had. It could be the light streaming in the window, some music that moves you, a person or pet you treasure. Anything at all. And just live with that image for another minute, thanking God for the blessing. . . .
And now, imagine yourself in the scene on your screen. Maybe you’re sitting on the bench or on the grass in the clearing or in the tree itself. And maybe you’re aware of something for which you’re longing, some yearning within you, some deep desire for wholeness, or healing, or direction, or reconciliation, or caring. Invite God to join you just there, in your longing. Maybe invite Jesus to sit with you on that bench. Just sit together for this minute. Lean on Jesus. Be aware of the presence of the One who adores you and seeks boundless good for you. And simply be open to what comes. . . .
As we wrap up and come back to this moment, thank God for undying and grace-filled love. . . .
And as we go forth, if this sort of silence is not something we’ve been practicing, may we consider going home by another way and making a habit of waiting in silence. May we be filled by the God for whom we wait, the God whose first language is silence, the God who aches for us to be filled with love. And as we do, may we know the deep peace that surpasses all understanding.