We are working our way through a series of lessons and practices from the life of Jesus, that may be of help to us as we live in these strange, pandemic times. This week we look at stillness, and silent prayer.
Luke 6:12-16 (The Message)
At about that same time Jesus climbed a mountain to pray. He was there all night in prayer before God. The next day he summoned his disciples; from them he selected twelve he designated as apostles:
Simon, whom he named Peter,
Andrew, his brother,
James, son of Alphaeus,
Simon, called the Zealot,
Judas, son of James,
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Learning Time: “Remember to Pray, and really pay attention”
According to Luke’s Gospel, before Jesus chose his inner circle, those who would become apostles, and work closely with him, he took a time out. The text says, “Jesus climbed a mountain to pray. He was there all night in prayer before God.”
We don’t know what Jesus prayed about all night, or how he prayed. I would make a guess that he spent at least part of that time calming down, settling in, and seeking what one of my favourite hymns calls the “quiet centre”- the place within that seems most in touch with God.
There are a few times in each day I am sure to pray. I pray before I eat, and at the end of the day, before I sleep. That was a tradition I wanted to start, when Lexie and I were first married, that every night, we would hold hands and pray. We pray in silence, and give a little squeeze of the hand to signal when we are done.
In my first year as the pastor here in Harrow, Lexie and Joel lived in Oakville, while he was finishing grade twelve. For most of that year, Lexie and I prayed our end of the day prayers on our own. The hand squeeze at the end was one of the things I missed the most that year.
Most nights, when I pray, I ask God to bless Lexie, our kids, and our life as a family. I pray for our extended family, and the people closest to us, and those in the lives of our kids. I pray for the congregation I serve, and those connected to it. If there are special concerns, like a grieving family, or someone very sick, I pray for them by name. If I have been especially asked to pray for someone, or something, even though I’ve likely done it during the day, I pray again at night.
These are what are often called intercessory prayers- asking God to be with, or help people, or situations. When I can’t think of a particular thing to ask for, for a person, these prayers can be more like asking for blessings upon them, or simply giving thanks for them.
If I have run through my list, and I’m still awake, and Lexie has yet to squeeze my hand, there are different things I may do. Sometimes I ask God what I should pray for, and then pay attention to the images, or words, or feelings, or ideas that emerge. Another thing I do is try to quiet my mind, and be still inside, and listen and wait on God. I try to intentionally situate myself in the silence.
Cultivating an inner stillness, and waiting on God, are practices that have become more common in church. Ten years ago I was part of a working group of ministers and spiritual directors brought together for a retreat to worship together, to pray, and strategize how to bring contemplative practices like intentional silence into congregational worship.
It is still the case in many places that practically every moment of a worship service is filled in with sound. Announcements, words of welcome, calls to worship, passing the peace. Hymns, readings, prayers, the sermon. Anthems. Special music. Invitation to the offering. Dedication of the offering. All good things. But in some places there is a frantic energy at work- as if there was something wrong with calming down, and sitting in silence, and leaving space for God.
In some churches I have visited over the years, and a couple I have worked at, there was history of people in a tug of war over silence. Some folks would want a few minutes before the worship service begins, to sit or kneel in silence. Others used that time for welcoming, greeting, and checking in with people, or having little meetings.
Not in Harrow, but in other places, I’ve seen folks use a certain look, or a loud “Shhh!” to impose silence on others. Nasty, and perhaps the exact opposite of the spirit of prayer. Silence in worship is not helpful if it is oppressive. We may appreciate silence, but not being silenced.
In many churches, the time before worship is for prelude music. I remember being a guest minister at a shared Good Friday service, and watching, and listening in bewildered amazement as the director of music stood and told a roomful of congregants, and guests from five other churches to sit down and stop talking, so he could play. He got us all to be quiet, but I don’t think it resulted in peaceful hearts. I can’t imagine that happening here in Harrow.
Since my first week leading worship here, I have used my Tibetan prayer bowl to mark the beginning and end of a time of prayerful silence. That was one of the strategies we discussed at the conference on contemplative practice in worship, all those years ago.
The only comments I have received about this shared time of silence is that some people wish it lasted a little longer. I think that speaks to our basic human need for intentional, gathered silence. I have kept on using the prayer bowl since our return to the sanctuary for virtual worship. I hope it is helpful. I’d like to know what it’s like for you, to share in that time of silence at home.
Jesus on the mountaintop all night, in prayer, away from all the disciples, and friends, and crowds of followers, had a lot of time to sit in silence.
The hymn I mentioned earlier says:
“Silence is a friend who claims us,
cools the heat and slows the pace,
God it is who speaks and names us,
knows our being, face to face,
making space within our thinking,
lifting shades to show the sun,
raising courage when we’re shrinking,
finding scope for faith begun.”
In this pandemic time, you may have more quiet time than you know what to do with.
I studied and worked, and lived with Quakers for a couple of years. One thing they are known for is something called unprogrammed worship, which depending on which gathering you attend, can involve from 15 minutes to an hour of sitting in silence.
Quakers have a name for rich, worshipful silence. They call it “expectant waiting”, which carries the implication that while outwardly it may look, and sound like nothing is happening, the Spirit is at work. One of the most famous Quakers, William Penn said,
“True silence is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”
Another writer, Robert Barclay described what it was like when he first experienced shared silence: “… when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.”
It sounds to me as if silence provided him a place to take an honest look at himself, which was an important step towards opening himself to the healing, transforming power of God’s love.
When I arrived at the Quaker college, and began attending worship services that consisted of a half hour of silence, I had some concerns. I worried I might fall asleep. (It happens.) I also worried I would be bored. Underneath those fairly trivial concerns, I had deeper worries.
I wasn’t sure I would like spending that much time quietly inside myself. I learned that many people have that worry, that if they sit quietly, they will have to face thoughts, fears, memories, feelings they don’t want to deal with. That may be why so many people always have a television, or radio, or computer, or cellphone going. They don’t really want undistracted time.
There is very little in our culture that encourages contemplative silence, and a lot that prevents it. I think that many of us who shy away from intentional silent prayer time, might be surprised at how healing, calming, and restorative it can be.
The other big fear I have both experienced, and heard others express, is what if I sit, and listen, and wait in silence for God to be with me, and God doesn’t show up? Some people would rather not test that one.
At the risk of sounding dismissive of that very real concern, one I have also felt, I want to offer the counsel that if sitting in silent prayer is something fairly new to us, or something we have not done a lot of, it may take quite a while before we can settle in, and our inner and outer senses become more attuned, and we learn to pay closer attention.
My Quaker friends would say every moment of every day is potentially a sacramental moment, in which the divine is present with us, but we are not always ready, willing, or quite able to see, to hear, to feel the gentle presence.
I also believe that even if we have a time in which we sit in silence, and don’t notice anything of God, the fact that we are trying to pay attention, that we have some thirst or hunger, or curiosity for what might happen, is a sign that God is already at work in us, waking us up to a new possibility, and stirring that desire within us. Amen