Friends, I am approaching a milestone this summer. On July 1, 2008, I entered into pastoral ministry in a small town called Canisteo, NY. I was in the midst of life within seminary and was working towards ordination within the United Methodist Church. I was full of words.
Between July 1, 2008 and July 1, 2018, I will have been a pastor for 521 Sundays. I have helped to bury many people, been invited to preach in multiple places outside Sunday mornings, and have probably held an extra 40 special services for religious holidays. I have been asked to pray in public more times than I can count, have blessed countless meals and events, and have even offered prayer at a snowmobile race track in weather so cold that my eyeballs began to freeze! I have shared a lot of words over the years.
Do you know what I find most strange as I approach this very odd anniversary? Besides the realization that I have survived a decade in pastoral ministry, I find myself coming to value the moments when I am not called to speak to other people. I have come to appreciate moments when I am allowed to embrace silence.
I am reminded of the words of Thomas Merton from his book “Contemplative Prayer.” First published in 1969, the monastic Thomas Merton wrote the following:
“Many are avidly seeking but they alone find who remain in continual silence… Every man who delights in a multitude of words, even though he says admirable things, is empty within. If you love truth, be a lover of silence. Silence like the sunlight will illuminate you in God and will deliver you from the phantoms of ignorance. Silence will unite you to God…”
I have had a multitude of words come out of my mouth, but as I age into ministry, I find myself becoming a person who no longer delights in having a multitude of words to share. Where once I felt the need to teach everything I learned in seminary, I find myself drawn to share fewer things more deeply. Most of my sermons have grown shorter over the years, most of my words simpler, and most of the concepts I preach more fundamentally simple, although not easy.
Let me try to explain. The other day a good friend and I were discussing Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of grace. If you don’t know Bonhoeffer’s classic statement about grace it can be summed up in the line from “cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church.” In his book on Discipleship, Bonhoeffer speaks about how he believed the church had been giving away grace so easily that people found it cheap and tawdry. True grace had a cost that was very dear. From this viewpoint, grace should never be seen as cheap as it is of inestimable value.
I found myself getting frustrated quickly while trying to express myself. I was not frustrated at my friend or at Bonhoeffer, but at the very limitation of my own language. God’s love and grace is of inestimable value, but there is something to be said about the challenge of saying “You are offering grace too cheaply” to another preacher, another person, another child of God. There are inherent challenges to even beginning to broach such a subject.
If I had a loaf of bread and there was a starving person in front of me, how could I stop to explain to the starving person that they might be treating the food as tawdry or cheap? The person is starving for food which we can neither produce or share without the grace of God. By the very grace of God, we have food to share with the starving.
That food exists because God has provided it through the love of Jesus, and as the Word of God made flesh, that raises more questions. Does not Isaiah 55:10-11 say: (NRSV)
“As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
If the grace we share comes from God through the Word made flesh, how can we look at that Word as being shared cheaply? Do we believe our method in sharing the word somehow breaks the divine purpose for which it is sent? Are we accusing each other of being false prophets when we do our best to faithfully provide for the hungry children of God? I am not expressing this idea well. Language failed me and still fails me in describing why this troubles me.
The closest I come to describing this challenge comes from a prayer from Gabriella Mistral, as translated by Langston Hughes. Gabriella Mistral was a Chilean poet who lived from the 19th into the 20th century.
“Like those jars that women put out to catch the dew of night,
I place my breasts before God. I give Him a new name.
I call Him the Filler, and I beg of Him the abundant liquid of life.
Thirstily looking for it, will come my son.”
We who serve in ministry bring words from God as found in scripture. I am not speaking simply of pastors. Sunday School teachers, prayer warriors, parents teaching children, children teaching parents, friends who love others, and all who share the gospel with others come to share something that comes from beyond ourselves. We come to the “Filler” and ask God for the liquid of life. It swells up within us and we share it with others. I’ve never breastfed a child as a male, but I can tell you as a partner and as a parent I have witnessed the challenges that come from teething children with sharp teeth. I have watched as my wife wondered if she would be able to create enough and have myself sometimes wondered if there’s enough milk in the world to fill that hungry mouth.
The world is thirsty and somewhere over the years, I have come to understand that what I can offer to the people of God does not come through a plethora of words. What I can offer that brings life, fullness, and goodness is born of my own dependency on God, on my relationship with the Holy Spirit, and upon what people are willing to drink without spitting up all over the place. Paul may invite us to move past spiritual milk into the bread of life with Jesus, but often I find myself able to share deeply only what is found in the “bread” that Christ invites me to break and share.
To call that grace which is offered to others who are starving as cheap… It sits wrongly in my soul and yet Bonhoeffer is right as well. The grace we offer is not cheap. It comes with a cost and is precious. There’s no perfect balance in these moments. I could write a soliloquy on how the needs, wants, and capacity of ourselves and others creates an almost impossible situation. I could fill the world with more words, but in truth, I would rather call on the Filler and wait in silence to see how God will provide for the needs of the children of God.
Allow me to continue the Merton quote found above:
“More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”
Approaching a decade into ministry, with literally thousands of prayers, sermons, and blessings underneath my belt as a minister, I sometimes long to simply share with people a powerful word that is simple, straightforward, complicated, and as deep as necessary. I have come through using hundreds of thousands of words publicly to value the power of silence as a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a comforter.
In many ways, I find comfort in the story found in 1 Kings 19:9-13. In that passage, Elijah is in the midst of a season of turmoil and challenge. Elijah is fleeing for his life from an angry queen who was married to the king of Israel. As he fled with the help of God he came upon Mount Horeb. The story goes:
“At [Mount Horeb] he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’
He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’”
Where was God but in the “sheer silence?” When God is with Elijah in the silence, Elijah is asked a “what” question, but I hear other questions in between the texts. Why were you there Elijah? What are you seeking? Where is your heart?
There is a lot of value to silence and the more time I spend preaching and teaching, the more I come to value moments where we seek the one that is found beyond the rushing, the shaking, and the fury. I seek the One found in the silence.