In one of my favorite books, A River Runs Through It, there is a wonderful scene where the narrator's father, a Presbyterian minister getting on in years, has been fishing with his sons -- Norman, the narrator, and his brother, Paul. At the point of the passage that follows, he has stopped fishing, and Norman goes looking for him.
I knew my father would be sitting on the bank, in the sunshine, reading the New Testament in Greek. I knew this both from instinct and experience. When I located him, he did not close the book until some time after he saw me.
"What have you been reading?" I asked. "A book," he said. It was on the ground on the other side of him. So I would not have to bother to look over his knees to see it, he said, "A good book." I looked anyway to see where the book was left open and knew just enough Greek to recognize logos -- the Word. I guessed from it that I was looking at the first verse of John.
Then he told me, "In the part I was reading it says the Word was in the beginning, and that's right. I used to think water was first, but if you listen carefully you will hear that the words are underneath the water."
"That's because you are a preacher first and then a fisherman," I told him. "If you ask Paul, he will tell you that the words are formed out of water."
"No," my father said, "you are not listening carefully. The water runs over the words. Paul will tell you the same thing."
My father went back to reading, and I tried to check what we had said by listening.
For me, one of the most startling and delightful precepts of Quaker spiritual practice is our belief that Jesus Christ is our Present Teacher. We believe that God not only watches over us closely with all-encompassing love, but that God actively seeks to instruct us, so that we may come to better understand God's plan for us, and better know how to fulfill it.
We further believe that, while there are many different means through which this teaching may take place, one of the best ways for us to hear God's voice is through the practice of listening in silence. After all, that's the way Jesus did it:
- In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says "When you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door."
- In the Transfiguration scene from Matthew 17, Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.
- In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there to pray." He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee. Then he said to them "Stop here," and then he went on a little further.
Through these examples, Jesus shows us that connecting with God should include isolating ourselves from the noise of our everyday world, either alone or with friends. For most of us, though, listening in silence for the voice of God, whether alone or in a group, can be a confusing and awkward experience. While we all enjoy a little peace and quiet, it doesn't take long before the voice in our head starts chattering unhelpfully with comments and questions like:
- I don't hear anything (or, at least, anything but the chickens)
- What does the voice of God sound like, anyway?
- How can I tell the difference between the voice of God and me talking to myself?
- Do I really believe that God will speak to me through the silence?
- Do I really believe in God?
And, if we happen to be in open worship, further difficult questions may arise, such as:
- Should I break this silence to share my thoughts? If so, when?
Yes, silence is indeed a tricky thing. No wonder that many religious traditions don't encourage its practice -- safer to just fill the time with ritual and liturgy. But I love that our tradition not only trusts us with silence, but encourages us to find God's voice within it.
One of our principal responsibilities as Elders is to "Discern the 'Health of Worship' regularly," which of course includes our time of open worship. While some in this meeting have been practicing open worship for years, many others are much newer to the practice. As Elders, we thought it might be helpful to the meeting if we shared some of our personal perspectives on the practice of open worship, and I volunteered to do so. So that is what follows...
For me, the story begins in a place of brokenness more than 20 years ago. Lacking any real relationship with God, I nonetheless cried out to Him, telling Him that I wanted to turn my life around, but I didn't know how. Expecting my pathetic cry to simply echo in the void, I instead heard an unmistakable voice: "I am here, and have always been here. I love you, and want you to be healed. If you follow me, I will lead you to a better place." My inner intellectual agnostic was simply overwhelmed by this mystical experience, and remains so to this day. This voice transformed my life, and I have been seeking to hear more of it ever since.
So... have I heard it again? Never so specifically, powerfully, transformatively, but... yes. And virtually always, it has been in a place of silence... or, as I sometimes think of it, in a place filled with God's noise. That first night, I was sitting in my young son's room as he slept, and the only sound I recall was his rhythmic breathing. Truly God's noise. Another time it was in the Rhododendron Garden early one Sunday morning, grieving the recent death of a friend, kneeling by a small waterfall. Again, God's noise. A third time it was on a plane, flying to attend the funeral of the wife of one of my employees, trying to find the words with which I could console him. The whine of jet engines may not qualify as God's noise (and, indeed, I now have noise canceling headphones to diminish it), but it still provided a cocoon that set me apart from the rest of the world and left me open to hearing what God had in store for me.
In all of these cases I would say that God snuck up on me -- I hadn't been consciously listening for God, but I had come to God with a broken and longing heart, and I had situated myself in a place where I could be open and receptive to what God had to say... and God did the rest.
Fortunately, though, I am not generally in this kind of pain -- just the usual joys and concerns -- yet I want God's guidance, comfort, and companionship in my life. So I seek out God in silent prayer... often right here. And then the dance with the questions that I raised a few minutes ago begins.
For me, the first thing I do to help make the questions go away is to remember my faith that the Word of God is always there for the listening, if I can only drown out the noise that blocks me from hearing it. Sometimes I can go up on a mountain or sit by a river, and there the sound is so pure I know I am hearing God. When that experience is not available -- for example, here in this room -- it often helps me to mentally transport myself to one of those places.
Another centering image I love is "Listening for the sound of the Big Bang." As you know, many scientists are dedicated to various aspects of observing the creation event. Some search the skies for waves (light, electromagnetic, or other) that emanate from objects so far away that the waves being observed are almost as old as the universe itself -- they were present near its creation. Others focus on Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation, a stream of photons emitted by the universe's creation and still spreading, which are all around us. In either case, detecting these "sounds" requires extreme quiet and careful listening. We know it is there, we just have to listen the right way. So I think of that as the voice of God, and I try very hard to listen.
Of course, the hardest and most distracting noise to get out of my head is the sound my own thoughts. Sometimes it takes me a while to notice that this is what is going on, but when I do I like to center on this variant of Jesus's prayer in the Garden at Gethsemane: "Not my voice, but yours." It may take some repetition, but often enough it stills my voice and leaves me with just God's noise. And from there often come the nudges and leadings that make our worship so special.
Which brings us to the topic of "speaking out of the silence." In open worship, our goal is to be led by Christ. If we speak or pray or sing, it should be because, and only because, we feel the Spirit of Christ prompting us to do so. This isn't "sharing," but something completely different. I don't know about you, but for me it is an enormous act of faith to believe that words on my mind truly arise from God's leading. But that is the standard we need to hold ourselves to since, as I sometimes think of it, by speaking I am "interrupting God for everyone in the room." So it had better be God doing the interrupting.
Stan Thornburg, a pastor whom many of you know, developed the following series of questions to test oneself regarding whether to break the silence of open worship:
- Is the message on my heart from the Holy Spirit and not just from me? If not, return to center. Sharing our own thoughts is not a good reason to interrupt God.
- If so, is the message intended for anyone else besides you? If not, return to center. Even if we are convinced God is the source of our leading, if it is truly only for us, there is no reason to interrupt the communing with God that others may be experiencing.
- Is the message intended for anyone else beyond a previous speaker? If not, return to center. Our prompting to speak is to come from God, not another participant in the meeting. It is true that God may speak to us through the words of another worshiper, but the urge to respond to that speaker is not the same thing as a leading from God to speak. It is better to hold that thought and share it with the speaker privately after worship.
- Is the message intended to be shared in this meeting right now? If not, return to center. The goal of open worship is for us to have the space to "Be Here Now" with God. If the leading lacks the urgency of "right now," then let it pass so that others may stay in their place with God.
- Is the message truly one God is asking you to share with this meeting? If not, return to center. This pulls a lot of the previous questions together for me. My message needs to not only be a leading from God, but the urge to share must itself be a leading from God.
Must you speak? If not, return to center. Put another way, am I being disobedient to God's leading by remaining silent? This final test is an incredibly high standard to achieve, but it does more than any of the previous questions to ensure that this really is God doing the interrupting, not me.
Despite all of these hurdles, it does sometimes happen for me. What does it feel like? For me, it begins with a pit in my stomach or tightness in my chest that tells me to pay close attention to the thought I am holding. When I do so, the sensation often melts away, if slowly, and I return to center. But sometimes it intensifies, and I get that metallic taste in my mouth that often accompanies fear -- like when the police car behind you puts on its lights. Then I know the leading is pretty real, but I still try to sit with that, run through the questions above, and sometimes it goes away. But when the pit rises up in my chest to my throat and merges with the metallic taste in my mouth, and I feel like my choices are to speak or to throw up, then I acknowledge the leading as meeting the "Must I speak?" test, and then I speak. I never know to whom, or why, but speaking does make these sensations go away, and I often learn after the meeting whom the leading was really for. God truly works in mysterious ways.
In the Quaker tradition, a truly healthy open worship is a time and place where all gathered can have an extended opportunity to listen for, and to hear, the voice of God. This will be achieved mostly, if not entirely, through sitting in silence -- after all, leadings to break the silence that pass the tests I posed above are rare indeed. This is a wonderful thing, especially if we remember that the absence of human noise is exactly what we need to in order to be able to listen well for the Word of God. A time of open worship when no one speaks is not necessarily a meeting where "nothing happened," but may in fact be the exact opposite if the Spirit is moving silently in each worshipper's heart. And if we all practice the discipline for speaking associated with those tests, then it is truly God breaking the silence, and that is further cause for celebration.
So now, as Mike likes to say, let us continue the work of worship, by centering ourselves and inviting God into our hearts, so that we may listen for and hear the Word that was in the beginning and is still with us today in this room.