Let us Ramble: On Stillness at the Breakfast Table

I am back! Last week I spent time at the Academy for Spiritual Formation, and I do not post while at the Academy. Spending time at the Retreat House in Malvern is always a blessing for me spiritually, but I really connected with a lot of the presentations this week. In particular, I connected with several of the Eastern Orthodox practices we experimented with in combination with some breathing techniques taught by Dr. Deborah Bell from the Minnesota Institute for Contemplation and Healing.

Truthfully, I struggle mightily with anxiety at times. Coming back into the world over the weekend was especially challenging to me as returning home is a movement from contemplation and silence towards action and engagement. Today, the first school morning I was home, was really filled with anxious moments as children needed to get ready, lunches needed to be put in bags, and the baby was being particularly insistent on having her wants met in addition to her needs. What’s worst, my experiment in making goat’s milk yogurt turned out absolutely dreadful.

At first this morning I was stressed and my anxiety went up through the roof, but I stopped the cycle this morning before it ramped up. I noticed the prayer rope on my wrist and thought back to last week. Father John Mefrige gave each participant a prayer rope with fifty knots. The purpose of the prayer rope is to pray around the rope with the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”).

I stopped what I was doing, ceased acting in ways that were making getting anxious, and took a few minutes to be still. I breathed in for three seconds, held my breath for seven seconds, and breathed out for eight as we were taught by Dr. Bell. I sat up straight, breathed in (“Lord Jesus Christ”), held my breath (“Son of God”), and breathed out slowly (“Have mercy on me…”). I slowed my body, focused my mind, and slowly felt my anxiousness begin to pass out of me.

Combining the gifted teaching of both Fr. Mefrige and Dr. Bell, I found a path away from children screaming out at random, a baby who wanted to be held, and away from tense moments where I might snap out at one of the four other people in my house. In the stillness within, I found a peace to help me get through the rest of my morning, even as copiers malfunctioned, phone calls were returned, and professional mail was sent out from a very busy post office with one window.

taize-silence

A phrase Fr. Mefrige used last week keeps getting stuck in my head. Some things are essential, even if they are not mandatory. For me, this morning, it was essential that I seek to slow down, to be still, to be silent, and to come before God while making sure there was enough air to keep my body running smoothly. Nobody forced that moment of stillness into my life, but upon finding it, I was moved into a place that was far more sane and far more peaceful.

Let us Ramble: Approaching Ten Years

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.

taize-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.

Let us Ramble: Silence isn’t always Silence?

Yesterday I posted on questions of silence. I was still deep in thought on the subject of silence when I began to work through my readings for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through a meditation on Psalm 148 in “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. As I read a portion relating to the Psalm stuck out to me: (40)

“If the fruit trees, the cedars, and even the hail are to give praise, then it follows that there is a way of praising God in which the spoken word is unnecessary. There is a Word that differs from the spoken kind. Sometimes it flows forth in the simple silence of being as shown in the mountains and hills. There is a Word that leaps up in the crackling of the fire, it rides in on the moaning of the wind and in the roar of the wild beast. Could this too be praise? Could all of creation be drawn like a magnet to the divine?”

Could there be a deep truth here? When I think of silence I often think about not speaking, not talking, not singing, and simply keeping my mouth shut. What if there’s a voice that speaks louder than my voice? While Sister Wiederkehr is speaking of the praise found in creation, is there a place where we are called to praise God through presence? As we listen to these wise words, is there a call by God to change the subject?

The 68th Psalm establishes that God is known to be a parent to orphans and a protector of widows. God cares deeply for the desolate and the prisoners. God is the one who is present in the lives of those who are often considered voiceless. If we are to love those whom God loves, are we not called to speak with both our voice and our presence?

Consider the words of James 2:15-16: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” What good are our words if they are not backed up by our presence? What good is our voice if we are not speaking through our deeds?

The fire crackles because the fire burns by nature. The wind moans as it blows through the trees because that is what the wind does when it passes through branches. The fruit tree grows fruit by nature. All of these things engage in their behavior by nature. If we are being called to be remade through the power of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t our voice be raised with love for all the people Jesus’ loves? Shouldn’t our voices crackle, moan, and grow like the rest of creation that reaches out in praise?

Let us Ramble: On Keeping Silent

What does it mean to keep silent? There are opportunities to share and to overshare for practically everyone with access to the internet, so what does it mean to keep silent? Ecclesiastes teaches us that there is a time for every matter under the sun. Ecclesiastes 3:7 states outright that there are times to speak and times to keep silent.

I awoke this morning pondering silence. I say I awoke this morning, but I honestly did not sleep much last night. We couldn’t find the cat. She just went AWOL at some point and every couple of hours I would restlessly wander the house calling her. There was no sign of her anywhere.

At four AM I went outside and started circling the house calling out to her. I heard no reply. At six AM I went out to let the dogs do their numbers. Suddenly there was a meow. The cat managed to get underneath the bay window. How? I have absolutely no idea how she got out, why she chose to hide there, or why she suddenly called out to me. I was glad she called out.

We often allow ourselves to get backed into corners through our own silence. We have a great idea, wander off into the darkness, and suddenly realize that it is very cold, dark, and rainy outdoors. I am probably anthropomorphizing, but we let our pride get the best of us until we know we need to call out for help. To keep silence when it leads to our own detriment is something some of us do far too often.

At the same time, as I ponder silence, I find myself thinking about next Monday. My wife and I will be going to the doctor’s office and we are going to be learning some good news that we will not be sharing with others until the 12th of August. We have a pact to keep silent on the subject until we can share it with our friends and communities together. We will keep silence because the silence will neither hurt nor damage others. This time is our time to share in this knowledge as partners and to prepare for the hubbub that will come after the announcement is made.

So, what does it mean to keep silent? Is silence an opportunity or a risk? Is silence a choice or a privilege? Is silence enforced or is silence a blessing? Is silence all of these things at different points? There is a lot to contemplate about silence in my mind this morning.

Let us Ramble: Selling Silence

In his book “Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation” the author Richard Rohr states:

“How do you market that which is inherently unmarketable? How do you sell silence? How do you make attractive what feels like selling air or selling emptiness or selling something that, certainly to the capitalistic mind, would not immediately be attractive at all?”

These are good questions. This quote came to mind as I considered the reading I did yesterday for Academy for Spiritual Formation. I was reading through “Thirsty for God: A Brief HIstory of Christian Spirituality” by Bradley Holt when the following quote caught my attention: (1—I’m just starting the book)

“You may be dehydrated right now but not know it. One peculiar feature of our physiology is that the signals for lack of fluid are not immediate or strong. Thus we may feel uneasy or tired when dehydrated but not recognize these symptoms as thirst. By the time we recognize thirst as such, we have already moved through the early stages of dehydration. Why does this matter? It matters because keeping our fluid levels up is vital for our bodies to function in so many important ways: for energy, for healing, for our immune systems, for electrolytes, and yes, even for sex.

So one part of the human predicament is that we do not always know what we really need or long for. Another part is that we find it difficult to act consistently on what we do know.”

How does a person sell silence? How does a person sell water? We learn to recognize thirst as thirst by necessity. I think that we have to learn to sell people silence by showing them the value, the need it quenches, and to consistently model it ourselves. Hence, this is all I’m writing today. Silence…