“Be Still and Know that I am God!”
“Be Still and Know that I am God!”
September 3, 2017
I was listening to a podcast the other day while I was working out. The speaker was Rob Bell, a theological and pastoral voice out there in the world whom I find inspiring. Once the pastor of a huge evangelical megachurch, Rob Bell went through a transformation in which he could no longer hold to the core convictions of that fundamentalist perspective: a faith that excluded non-Christians, gay and lesbian people and everyone else who wasn’t an evangelical Christian from God’s love. He wrote an amazing book, “Love Wins,” which outlined these changes and which marked his exile from the evangelical world. What didn’t end for him was his life of faith and his quest to cultivate a life filled with the presence of God.
It’s nice when a bright, incredibly articulate person challenges the people whom you wish would be challenged, right? “You go, Rob!” The problem is when those people are honest enough to have the audacity to challenge us, too: “Now, Rob…hold on just one minute, buddy!” Everyone wants the truth to be spoken until it is the truth that we don’t want to hear.
The truth that Rob Bell spoke in this particular podcast was two-fold. First, in the spirit of our Psalm this morning, he says that, “It takes a lot of silence to make speech.” As a person of faith, he says that the primary activity is not speaking but listening, that the primary thing that we need to seek is not noise but silence. As someone once pointed out to me, “There is a reason God gave us two ears and one mouth. Why don’t we take the hint?” In the words of the Psalmist, if we want to know God then what we need to do is learn how to be still.
The problem, of course, is that we can sit here in church and all nod together and mumble to each other… “Ya…silence is good. Of course, we should embrace silence. Got it!” However, even in our community of faith, silence is, for the most part, for most people, uncomfortable. Did you feel it this morning when I let the silent prayer go a little longer than usual? Did you peek to make sure that I hadn’t fallen asleep or that something had not gone horribly wrong? Have you ever been to Taize’ worship? Every thing rolls along fine for a few songs and then, God forbid, there is a 15 minute period of silence. You can hear people squirm, especially the new, unsuspecting people! There is a reason that most people avoid centering prayer like the plague, a forty-five minute time of emptying ourselves and listening to some very quiet music and perhaps listening to wherever it is that God might take us if we weren’t so busy going wherever we want to go.
Here’s the problem, though. What so many people would love to discover—a faith that is vital and speaks to their lives and deepens those lives— has far less to do with the words that you hear me speak or the words that you choose to say than it does with your willingness to learn how to be still and speak the most dangerous phrase in our faith: “O.k., God…I’m listening!”
The thing is that what we are talking about so far is quiet in church, the one place you might bet on if you were asking, “Hey, where are people going to ever give silence a shot?” The truth is, though, that we bring our issues with us to church just like we bring them everywhere else. Our discomfort with silence cuts across every aspect of our lives.
(I do want to say that the particular loss that is there for us when we can’t really be silent in church is the chance to be silent together and not just by ourselves. Talk to the regular attendees of centering prayer (the hardy few!) and what you will hear is that powerful experience that unfolds in those 45 minutes of being silent together. The experience would not be the same if we all just chose to spend 45 minutes in silence at home. A defining part of the experience is the shared silence of being still together.)
So, if we can’t be silent or still at church, where will we be? When is the last time you drove in silence? Even if you turned the sound system off, did you fill the silence with one of those endless monologues in your own head? I was watching a commercial the other day on television and it only occurred to me after the fact that an essential part of the marketing was the musical barrage that accompanied the images. It was an aural assault that seemed designed to keep you from thinking as the product was presented. In the stores, at the amusement park, in the restaurant, just about everywhere you go, the threat of silence is chased away by some music that fills the void. (I will admit that it is very strange to now be so old that the “vanilla” music that they play is the soundtrack from my youth!)
As restorative as my time in Open Lands can be, it is anything but silent. Firetruck and ambulance sirens scream and the coyotes answer. Grinding noises resonate from the nearby landscape companies as they sharpen their blades. The engines that run the machines that keep our drinking water clean kick on. The train screeches to a halt. In between the man-made noises, a cardinal calls. A hawk screeches. Frogs chirp. The river babbles. It’s not silent but it is quieter. There are a lot less words. There is a chance to remember how to be still for a little while.
Interestingly, scientists are hard pressed these days to find anywhere where manmade noise is not present. In the most remote of places, planes fly over. On the Arctic ice, a snowmobile kicks in. They have demonstrated that the songs that the birds have sung for centuries have adjusted to be heard both above and below all that noise. Even the communication of whales who might be thousands of miles at sea are disturbed by man-made noises that travel so efficiently through water.
In essence, then, the absolute silence we may fear might not even be possible. Learning to quiet ourselves is possible. We could learn to be still. However, in order to be quiet and be still we would actually have to make a choice. This is Rob Bell’s second point.
In a world in which silence is a problem, even in a church, in which even on a good day we have a heck of time being still, in which real problems happen and it feels like the whole world roars, we have to learn to say, “No!” When it feels like all that “talking heads” on the news are doing is screaming at one another, it is time to turn off the t.v. When you are overwhelmed with the speed and pace of your life, the challenge may not be to go faster. The challenge may be to stop, to do what it takes to step back and step away. When we are caught in a genuine dilemma and we are not sure what to do, the best choice may be to say, “No!” to the temptation to obsess and instead set it aside for a minute and allow room for some perspective. Insight doesn’t come from getting stuck or obsessing or panicking. Insight comes from looking at something in a new way. That new way of looking at something almost always involves, stepping back, looking away, and closing our eyes for a moment or two. Then, we open our eyes again and ask ourselves, “What do I see now that before, I just missed?”
The Psalmist promises that “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.” This is not a church where we believe that God helps us by doing everything for us or by fixing everything or by giving us everything we want. We did look at one way that God helps us last week when we talked about what it is like to be renewed—to discover new energy to face what we need to face. God doesn’t do the hard things for us but God is with us when we do them and sometimes we know that because we are not as exhausted as we were sure that we would be. Whatever it was, we got through it and we’re pretty sure that only happened with God’s help.
Perspective—the hard won perspective that comes with lived faith— is another of the ways that God is a very present help in trouble. We don’t have to give into fear, even when it feels like everything is up for grabs because God is in the mix. What we have to do is work to stay connected to God, no matter how hard the world shakes. What we have to do is find a way to be still, no matter how loudly the world roars. What we have to do is find the ways to remind ourselves, in the words of the Psalmist, that “God is in the city and it shall not be moved.” (Who can watch the horrors of the flooding in Houston and not be moved by the way that the presence of God shines when neighbors help neighbors, when first responders put themselves at risk to help, when people who would otherwise be divided are united in doing the right thing!)
If we want that perspective to truly be there for us when the hard things come our way, then we have to practice grounding ourselves in that perspective every day. We work at looking at all sorts of things with fresh eyes and not relying on our “first take.” We don’t have to fill every moment with noise. We learn how to make peace with being still. We do the hard work of silencing the voice inside of us that would evaluate and judge and process, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and instead, dare to empty ourselves and listen. When we do this, day in and day out, when we say, “No!” to the noise and the thrashing and the roar of our world, we are amazed at what we see and what we hear.
“Be still and know that I am God!”