Carlos Wilton, October 14, 2012; Non-Lectionary Sermon
Psalm 46; Romans 8:18-27
“Be still, and know that I am God!”
[Begin the sermon with a very long silence.]
“‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”
We have just taken some time to enjoy a rare and precious gift: the gift of silence. It’s a rarity, indeed, in this sound-saturated world of ours. It’s a precious gift, because of the surprising treasures we discover in a time of silence: glittering gems shimmering in a mud-puddle.
I spent my junior year of college in a Unitarian theological college in Oxford, England. Most of the students there weren’t Unitarians; the college was so poor, and the enrollment of their ministerial candidates so diminished, they had to take in a bunch of American undergraduates like me, to pay the bills. Yet, when all of us gathered in the dining hall for the midday meal — Unitarians and American interlopers alike — and the faculty strode in from the Senior Common Room, academic gowns streaming behind them, we all rose and stood for grace, offered by the principal, Mr. Findlow.
The problem, though, if you’re a Unitarian, is what words to use, by way of prayer. These people claim their “only creed is tolerance,” so that means you’ve got to shy away from anything too specific, for fear of offending somebody. For some of them, it’s even tricky to mention God at all. Mr. Findlow’s solution, day after day, week after week, was to pause for a brief moment of silence, then to conclude by saying: “We thank you for the silence, that gives and receives.”
I never did cotton to the Unitarian way of trafficking in airy abstractions, avoiding all specificity in religious language, but that phrase of Mr. Findlow’s has stuck with me ever since: “silence that gives and receives.”
If there’s anything that could be described as paddling upstream against the river of popular culture, it’s the idea that silence has anything at all to offer. In the world of radio and TV broadcasting, there’s a much-used phrase: “dead air.” It’s to be avoided at all costs. Something go wrong with the broadcast? Quick! Fill the gap. Say something — anything! Just don’t let that dead air continue!
More than any people who have ever lived on this planet, we in this place and time live out our days immersed in a surging sea of sounds. From the clock radio that rouses us from sleep, to the TV news at the breakfast table, to the car radio on the way to work, to the ceaseless conversations at the workplace (in person or on the telephone), to the electronic entertainment emanating from our TVs and computers in the evening, there’s nary a moment when we can shut off all that auditory stimulation and look inward.
All this is not good for us. Especially if the French Christian philosopher, Blaise Pascal, is right. Pascal wrote: “All of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit alone, quietly, in a room, for any length of time.”
In 2002, an English reporter traveled to a remote Greek Orthodox monastery in northern Yorkshire and wrote about her experience for The Guardian newspaper. Just two nuns lived the Monastery of the Assumption at the time: Mother Thekla, the abbess, 83 years old; and Mother Hilda, who was in her 50s. Why was it so hard to find new members to join their little community, the reporter wanted to know?
“We have been robbed of our inner resources,” answered Mother Thekla, without hesitation. “Elevator music is all around. All the silences are covered. These days it is considered cruel to have a quiet classroom for children.”
It’s not that no visitor ever comes to the Monastery of the Assumption, aspiring to a religious vocation. Women do come and try the monastic life out, said Mother Thekla. The problem, she explains, is that most of them don’t “know what to do sitting in a room by themselves.”
I suppose that, as the general population ages, and more and more people will have grown up with iPod wires dangling from their ears, the challenge of sitting in a room by ourselves will seem even more daunting.
Psalm 46 celebrates the God who is “our refuge and our strength.” Countless generations have celebrated this psalm as a powerful expression of God’s presence in difficult times: from Martin Luther, who worked its words into his hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” to the people of New York after 9/11, who desperately needed to meet the God who is “a very present help in trouble.”
“We will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea” – though airliners fly into office towers, vaporizing the bodies of their passengers in a ball of fire, and bringing those mighty steel-and-concrete buildings crashing to the ground, one floor at a time: the space they occupied filled first by empty air, then by the massive cloud of dust and debris rising up from below.
When the famed radio newscaster Edward R. Murrow made his first broadcast reporting on his visit to the newly-liberated Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, he ended by saying this:
“I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words. Dead men are plentiful in war, but the living dead, more than 20,000 of them in one camp. And the country round about was pleasing to the eye, and the Germans were well-fed and well-dressed.”
“For most of it I have no words.” A stunning thing to hear, from a man who made his living speaking words into a microphone. Yet, there truly are some times and seasons in life when no words will do, when only silence can be trusted to speak the message we most truly need to hear.
“Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
‘Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.’”
“Be still, and know that I am God.” If you want to learn how to pray, that’s the place to begin: with stillness, and with silence. The old radioman Murrow’s absolutely right: For the most moving moments of this life of ours, there are no words. It’s equally true of the glorious moments, as well as the heart-wrenching. Even the most erudite fall into silence when cradling their newborn child in their arms for the first time, or when gazing upon the waxy face of their own father or mother, laid out in a casket at the funeral home. In vain we try to fill the silence with the endless chatter of distraction, when what we most need to do is trust the silence, that gives and receives.
Rabbi Abraham Joseph Heschel was one of the wisest and most humble spirits of any religious tradition, as well as a great mystic. Listen to what he frankly admits, about the difficulty of prayer:
“We do not refuse to pray. We merely feel that our tongues are tied, our minds inert, our inner vision dim, when we are about to enter the door that leads to prayer. We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it. We ring the hollow bell of selfishness rather than absorb the stillness that surrounds the world, hovering over all the restlessness and fear of life — the secret stillness that precedes our birth and succeeds our death…. We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God.”
It is in moments like those that the Christian poet T.S. Eliot speaks deep wisdom to our human condition:
“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.” [From “East Coker”]
As someone who’s often called upon to offer public prayer — an invocation at a community meeting, or grace at a banquet — I’m very aware that a great many people feel utterly inadequate to that task. Maybe you yourself are numbered in that company: “Call on me to do anything for the church, Reverend, just don’t ask me to pray in public!” Well, I can understand how that would seem to be a daunting task, if you’ve never done it before — with all those other people listening in — but that’s no reason why anyone should feel the same about private prayer. Yet, a great many do – and, again, maybe you too are numbered among them.
Let me make it a little easier for you. Consider this: God already knows not only what you want to say — deep in your heart, in that dark and pregnant place where feelings and yearnings give way to words — but also what you will say. It’s utterly impossible for you to embarrass yourself, praying to the God who loves you.
What do you think God wants of you: eloquent sonnets, worthy of Shakespeare? Don’t be foolish! What do you think God is looking for, in your prayers? Entertainment? Why, here in Psalm 46, the Bible tells us all we really need to do is be still, and know the Lord is God. It doesn’t matter how you say it, because God already knows it.
Last spring I was privileged to attend the graduation ceremony for our Point Beach Prep preschool. It was held in our Education Annex across the street, the parents and grandparents sitting on folding chairs. They were waiting for the kids to process in to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” construction-paper mortarboards perched on their heads.
The procession was about as ragged as you’d expect from a crowd of three- and four- and five-year-olds. What lines the kids had to say, up on stage, were frequently forgotten, requiring the services of a prompter to coax the words out of them. The songs they sang were sung by only about two-thirds of the young graduates, the rest standing there mutely, gazing back with the familiar deer-in-the-headlights look.
But, do you know what? It didn’t matter. Because those parents and grandparents were just as pleased and proud of those kids as they could possibly be. There was love in that room, love abounding. You could feel it. It filled the place, leaving no room for anything else.
That’s exactly what it’s like, when you or I, or anyone else, approaches God in private prayer. We are the preschoolers up on stage (doesn’t Jesus say we’re supposed to approach God as though we were children?). God is the proud parent in the audience, holding the camcorder. Do you really think it’s important to God that you get your lines right? Or even that you say anything at all?
The act of prayer is very much like what Woody Allen quipped about life itself: “95% of life is showing up.” Or, maybe it’s like that old athletic-footwear marketing slogan: “Just do it!” Be still and know that the Lord is God. That’s all you have to do. It’s both the starting-point and the finish-line of prayer. Being still and entering into the great silence.
Today’s New Testament lesson from Romans 8 delivers even better news. The apostle Paul frankly admits the anxieties many of us feel about praying to God: “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” No kidding. Tell us something we don’t know, Paul!
Well, here’s something maybe you don’t know — or, even if you do, that you probably haven’t thought about in quite a while: “That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
God provides a ghost-writer for our prayers: and it’s none other than the Holy Spirit! But, did you notice what Paul says about how the Holy Spirit does it? “With sighs too deep for words.” If the Holy Spirit isn’t concerned about finding just the right words, then why should we be?
As the wise Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, once wrote: “Silence is the language of God — all else is poor translation.”
So, as you consider filling out that commitment card this morning about trying to deepen your prayer life, the most valuable piece of advice I can give you is this: Don’t overthink it. Prayer is not about composing flowery phrases in English, or any other human language. If Merton’s right in declaring God’s first language is silence, then all we need to do is unplug, turn off, get away from the curtain of sound that is our present culture. Find yourself a quiet place to sit and meditate. Empty your mind and open your heart. Be still and know that the Lord is God: and count upon the Holy Ghost-writer to show up, in the fullness of time, and give you the words you need.
Let’s conclude our time of reflection, this morning, with an ancient prayer from the Celtic Christian tradition:
I weave a silence on my lips,
I weave a silence into my mind,
I weave a silence within my heart.
I close my eyes to distractions,
I close my eyes to attentions,
I close my heart to temptations.
Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm,
Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm,
Let all the tumult within me cease,
Enfold me, Lord, in your peace.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.