A guest pastor from India commented after a Sunday service at Grace: “Dear brother, your beautiful Sunday worship service began with singing ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence,’ followed by 60 minutes of uninterrupted speech.” He caught the irony of what we missed, our singing about awe-filled silence before God and our structured avoidance of doing so. Our American culture is hardly fertile soil for cultivating spiritual depth. We Christians reflect a general impatience with anything that doesn’t jump from one subject to another, without time for silence in between. I am told that the average American has an attention span of 22 seconds. We need help in learning to receive silence as a gift in the rhythms of worship and the daily life of faith.
I tried to offer some of that needed help one Sunday morning by beginning a sermon in a manner unlike any before—or since. I entered the pulpit and stood silent for a full 90 seconds. People were polite at first, thinking that a few seconds’ initial pause was to gain attention. Thirty seconds in, the mood began to change, some congregants simply bewildered, others unamused, thinking this was a ruse to test their patience. At the one-minute point the restlessness gave way to worry that I might be having a stroke or a premature senior moment. After 90 seconds, which seemed to me and to everyone else an eternity, I explained the intentional silence as an introduction to a sermon on Psalm 46:10 and the divine command: “Be still and know that I am God.” Once was enough for that way of teaching silence by springing it on the congregation as a surprise. I did not use it again. We Americans are used to having virtually every waking moment filled with sound. Thus our discomfort with silence is predictable. I used to think it was a generational matter that I could never understand why our kids as teenagers put on some heavy-metal rock as background noise while doing homework. But I’m convinced that all of us of all ages are so conditioned by the technologies of sound production that the image of the human head with earphones is the sign of our times. We come ill-prepared to accept silence, in the sense of something other than the absence of sound, as an essential in how we relate to God.
That we are accustomed to nearly constant sound poses a tough challenge in making room for silence in the rhythms of worship and life. Silence must be consciously sought, prepared for, and received with an awareness of what to do with it. A step in the right direction appears more often these days in worship bulletins. “Silence for reflection” is a welcome invitation, and worshipers understand and make good use of it. It’s a small but hopeful sign of providing perhaps 60 seconds of silence for thinking, meditating, praying in response to the Word proclaimed. Are there other times and ways in which silence can be balanced with sound in a healthy rhythm? I am a novice with much to learn. I have found, however, that when taking a walk I can turn off distracting sounds and fill silence by drawing from a treasury of memorized hymn verses and favorite passages of Scripture that turn me to God for the sheer enjoyment of God’s presence. Another opportunity comes when time otherwise lost to frustration because of unexpected delays can be turned into time for quiet while waiting.
An example comes to mind from a call I made at a hospital some distance away. The parishioner I visited died while I was there. She was a widow with an adult son who was on a four-hour flight in the hope of seeing his mother before she died. I wanted to be present when he arrived and found an empty hospital room where I could wait for him. That meant spending four hours in silence, remembering the varied experiences throughout my life and the goodness of God that had brought me to the present. It turned out to be a wonderful four hours, beyond anything I had expected. When the son arrived, I was grateful to keep the flow of thought and prayer moving, this time in ministry to one grieving the death of his mother. It was a forceful reminder to me that silence can be the best preparation for speaking the Word of faith.
Here it must be said, however, how thin Lutheran and other Protestant traditions are in cultivating the inner spiritual life and the place of silence. We must go back to 17th-century German pastoral theologians such as Johannes Bengel and Matthias Claudius for sources of a tradition that consciously cultivates the life of the soul. Another notable figure from that era is Martin Rinkart, whose magnificent hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” was written during the plague that swept away his family as well as most of the faithful in the place where he served. Who knows the hours of silence and sorrow that produced such a hymn? It’s worth noting that these were parish pastors who were silent before God and therefore had something lasting to say. In more recent times the pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison are classics of the inner life. He filled the silence of his prison cell with the profound faith expressed in his poems and prayers, a faith that a Nazi hangman’s noose could not defeat. We in our American activist setting are tempted daily to measure ministry more by quick success than by spiritual qualities that take time and silence to develop.
If hell is noise, as C. S. Lewis averred, then silence is golden and much more. It is a gift for our taking. As a community and as individuals, we experience its highest purpose when God fills it with the Word of Christ and the wondrous mystery of the Paraclete’s indwelling. From that prime purpose of giving God a hearing, silence spreads its leavening effect to every aspect of pastoral ministry.
The gifts disclosed through moments of silence can come unexpectedly. I remember times when, as I hustled down the hallway outside my study on my way somewhere, my eye caught the rich, deep blues, greens, reds, and golds pouring through the stained-glass windows from the late-morning sun to make a stunning splash of color on the slate floor of the Grace sanctuary. The effect made me stop and savor the beauty waiting there in the quiet of the empty sanctuary (why empty so much of the week?) and offered me an unexpected gift, in Technicolor no less! Like divine grace itself, these are moments we don’t create. We receive them. Willingness to recognize them and openness to receive them are our part in the connection. I have found that the universe still holds together if such moments are not lost to schedule anxiety. Other numinous glimpses of God’s grandeur come to mind: the late-afternoon sun breaking through blue-black clouds as a storm passes by; the glisten of sunlight on a patch of dew-covered grass, just turned green with springtime freshness; the almost audible silence of the sheer magnificence of the Grand Canyon. These remembered moments come from God’s work in nature. Even more filled with wonder is his work through people, who over time are being changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18) by the Lord Christ, who made time for silence and prayer in preparation for sharing with us the glory of his redeeming love.
As I continue to seek and find silence and blend it into the rhythms of the daily rounds, I share an Advent prayer often attributed to Dame Julian of Norwich, that 14th-century woman whose writings during her brief life still speak to us across the centuries:
Lord, let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee or thine,
But quiet homes of prayer and praise, where thou mayest find fit company,
Where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away,
And wide, sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down
And fervent longings watch and wait thy coming.
Excerpted fromThe Grace of It All: Reflections on the Art of Ministry, copyright © 2006 by the Alban I
nstitute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce go towww.alban.org/permissions.asp.
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