Sound of Silence

 

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. – 1 Kings 19:11-12

Periodically I feel as if I am standing with Elijah outside the cave on Mt. Horeb. His life is a bit more dramatic than mine. He has just killed all the prophets loyal to Queen Jezebel. The Queen has sworn to find him and to kill him. He has run away to save his skin. His path has led him to a cave on the Mountain of God. He lodges there. He waits.

He hears a voice. The text says “the word of the LORD” came to Elijah. The voice asks him what he is doing there. He rants: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of Hosts. For the people of Israel have forgotten your covenant…killed your prophets…I am the only one left and they seek my life, to take it away.” The voice tells him to go outside the cave and wait; the LORD is about to pass bye.

Elijah waits. A strong wind rises, tears and breaks rocks. But God is not in the wind. After the wind there is an earthquake, and then fire. Rock shattering wind, earthquakes, and fire are great images for the presence of God and God’s presence is often associated with all three. But this time God is not found in them.

Then Elijah hears something. The hebrew is translated in different ways. He hears the sound of something like a soft breeze. Some texts name it “a thin silence,” others “a sheer silence.” This silence is not the sound of emptiness. It is the silence of presence. When Elijah hears it he wraps his face in his cloak and goes out to the entrance of the cave; he knows he is in the presence of God.

Someone once said that if we are to embrace the spiritual life we eventually have to become comfortable with periods of unknowing and silence; we enter into a relationship with God who enters into a relationship with us, and yet always remains beyond our knowing. We use many words, and our words are important. Yet God remains beyond our words.

It sometimes happens that the images we have of God, the knowledge we have accumulated, the stories we have cherished begin to crumble. The things that moved us, inspired us, comforted us, begin to feel empty. We may feel as if we are loosing our faith, or that our faith was unreal. The truth is not that the stories and images are not good or helpful, or that our faith was or is unreal. It may simply be that we are moving closer to the one who is spoken of in the stories, but is so much more than the stories. The stories, the words, the images must give way to the reality of the living God.

Thomas Merton underscores the importance of this for our religious practices. He writes:

“If there is no silence beyond and within the many words of doctrine, there is no religion, only religious idolatry. For religion goes beyond words and actions, and attains to the truth only in silence and Love. Where this silence is lacking, where there are the “many words” and not the One Word, then there is much bustle and activity but no peace, no deep thought, no understanding, no inner quiet.” (Love and Living. NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1979, p. 20)

It is so easy for us to fall in love with the busyness and activities of the church. We need to be careful that we do not fall in love with our own busyness and our own words, and forget that God is the center of all that we do. There are times in which we must stop, be silent, and listen to God, who meets us in silence. The stories we tell, the images we use, the words, are important. Even the work we do. But at some point, like Elijah we must stand outside the cave on our own Mt. Horeb. There we discover the presence of the One who meets us in silence.

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Strawberry Jam

 

A Confession (1985) by Czeslaw Milosz

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man?

Nothing like stating the obvious: creation came to be not by accident, but by intention.

Read Gen. 1:31. It does not say that God saw everything that God had made and said “oops”, or “Oh no!” Rather it reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (NRSV)

We seem to forget that the bible begins with Gen. 1 and not with Gen. 3. The overarching biblical plot is not that of an angry God whose desire is to curse and to destroy, who must be appeased, but of a creative God of blessing, whose intention is that all life should flourish.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that the cow grazing in a field under a tree praises God perfectly, by simply being there.

The material world, this embodied life is not a mistake. It s a gift. It is not meant to be endured and suffered, but to be lived, to be celebrated.The spiritual life is not an escape from this life, but a deeper embrace of it.

That’s why I so love Czeslaw Milosz’s A Confession. Maybe only a person who loves the taste of strawberry jam can be a prophet.

Maybe only the person who shares God’s love for this created world will be moved enough to protest our violence, our readiness to destroy and kill, our careless abuse of the earth.

Consider the BORG

 

A few years ago I decided I would give up busyness and worry. It would have been easier to give up coffee and red meat. I made it about three days. I discovered how much I am addicted to busyness and worry. Withdrawal is worse than a caffeine headache. I discovered what I suspected: if there is nothing to worry about, I find something; if I have a few hours of uncommitted, discretionary time, I find a project and get busy doing it.

I have internalized a cultural value that embraces busyness and mistrusts idleness. It is wired into my nervous system. I am struggling to get it out of my system. I am in recovery.

Reading Thomas Merton helps me in my recovery. In one of his journals he wrote:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

His point: to embrace this somehow tears into the fabric of our identities. We are less and less authentically ourselves, and more and more defined by what is outside of us. We become more driven by what is expected of us (or by what we expect of ourselves), and loose touch with who we might be, what lies at the center of our own souls. It is a depersonalizing act of violence. We are drawn and quartered. Worse yet, we tie the ropes onto our hands and feet.

There is much about being human that is beautiful and good, and has absolutely nothing to do with producing anything. We are so much more than the things we do. If we jamb our days till they overflow with projects, we are at risk of loosing important parts of ourselves. Do we recognize the value and importance of simply having tea with a friend, of breathing in the smell of a damp field, of listening to the rain, of simply sitting together opening to God?

Merton suggests that not only are we missing significant pieces of our human experience. We are at great risk of misdirecting our lives. Our compulsive busyness becomes a source of violence as we begin to value others and ourselves less as people, and more as objects in relationship to our projects and goals. We fail to notice and begin to pour the dark side of our personalities over each other.

Again, Merton:

“When we live superficially, when we are always outside of ourselves, never quite ‘with’ ourselves, always divided and pulled in may directions by conflicting plans and projects, we find ourselves doing many things that we do not really want to do, saying things we do not really mean, needing things we do not really need, exhausting ourselves for what we secretly realize to be without meaning in our lives…this inner contradiction, derived from the alienation and frustration in American life, is one of the roots of violence in our society. We seek release by fantasies and dramas of violence.” (Love and Living, Harcourt, 1979, p. 43.)

Even the church is complicit when it surrenders without critical thought to cultural models that surround it. A good Christian becomes defined as a busy Christian, purpose driven, fully engaged in a 24/7 busy church. Busyness becomes a substitute for real discipleship. People unconsciously become valued more for what they do to help the church meet its goals, than for who they are as sacred persons.

A path to recovery? Recognize and name our addiction. Reclaim the beauty and power of sabbath time, silence, listening to God, of play and idleness. Value each other first as persons, and then figure out what we might do together.

We do have much to do. We are called to feed the hungry, clothes the naked, visit the sick, to respond to the needs of others that surround us. But out of compassion, not as projects that prove our significance as an organization. And we need to keep real boundaries in place, least we turn ourselves and others into cogs in some productive machine (Borgs).

We need to recover our sacred, human center.

Work for Peace

9.11

Image by drp via Flickr

In truth, I struggle each year as Sept. 11 approaches. The day begs that something be done to remember and to respond to the evil and tragic violence acted out almost ten years ago. The question is how do we do that and do it well? What do we do?

Clearly the day has special significance for those who lost loved ones, friends, and neighbors that day. Our hearts go out to them, and our prayers.

That day violence was no respecter of persons. People of many religions and none, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, agnostics and atheists, people from many nations and cultures, all died because of this act of hatred and terrorism. And the circle of violence expands. We all were wounded.

I am convinced that the best way to honor this day is to stand as clearly as I can against all forms of terrorism and everything that feeds it: fear, pride, intolerance, racism, repression, enmity, hatred, and violence itself. I am also convinced that the place in which I must first take this stand is in me.

Kierkegaard concludes his wonderful book The Works of Love by observing that the place where the battle for love is most difficult and must be fought with intensity is in our hearts. It is not in the world where the battle line is drawn: it is drawn in us. We become people who love, or we will never love as we should.

He is not arguing for a passive stance in the world until we reach some inward spiritual perfection, but rather he is observing that the root of hate, violence, and indifference is in us. And there we must fight for love.

The same is true if we are to be people of peace. We must do the things that are necessary in our communities. But we cannot neglect the inward, inner, spiritual work. The way to fight terrorism is to work for peace. To work for peace we must become people of peace. What Mahatma Gandhi once said remains true: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I have no great wisdom of my own, so I share with you a few words on peace that come to mind as I remember Sept. 11. I hope they touch and challenge you as they do me.

From the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“I’ve decided that I’m going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe in something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days. I can’t make myself believe that God wants me to hate. I’m tired of violence. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.”

“I’m convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never ending reign of chaos.”

“Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.”

(Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King Jr., Newmarket Press, 1987, 71, 90)

From Thomas Merton:

“Only love, which means humility, can exorcise the fear that is at the root of all war.”

“Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men, and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

(Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence, Crossroads, 1995, 34, 38)

Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Aware of the sufferings caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning the ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation , social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness  and learning ways to work for the well being of (all life)…I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of the other species of the planet.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others, and to relieve others of their suffering.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Parallax Press, 2008, chapter 2.)

Jesus of Nazareth: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”  Matt. 5:9

How might we honor this day? Let us remember and pray for all who lost their lives that day, and in the wars that followed. Let us pray and work for the end to the senseless violence and acts of terrorism.  Let struggle against everything that feeds such violence in others, and especially in ourselves.

Miroslav Volf, who lived through the ethnic violence in Serbia, writes: “A more difficult question remains: what resources will help us resist the temptation of violence.”   (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, 1996, 249.)

It is a question each of us must answer.

Albert Schweitzer wrote in a letter to Norman Cousins: “I decided I would make my life my argument. I would advocate the things I believed in, in terms of the life I lived and what I did.” (Howard E. Robles, compiler, Reverence for Life: the Words of Albert Schweitzer, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 41)

How might we best honor the day? By deciding like Schweitzer, that we will make our lives an argument for peace.

Pastor Bill

A Letter from The United Methodist Bishops on 9/11: http://www.gnjumc.org/fileadmin/news_events/letter_from_bishop_archives/Statement_September_11_2010__2_.pdf

To access the letter: copy and paste the address in your browser.

When There Are No Burning Bushes: The Absense of God

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...

Image via Wikipedia

Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. — Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979[1]

In my last post I wrote about those wonderful moments in which God feels so close that we can feel God’s presence in our bones. I also wrote that I thought the difference between us ordinary folk and the great saints is that for them the world is filled with burning bushes and the reality of God is transparently, perhaps blindingly clear.

I have thought about that a little more. I have realized that that is not quite true. The great saints of the church often speak and write about another religious experience, often devastating,  but no less real: a spiritual dryness in which God is nowhere to be found.

I remember first waking up to the reality that the spiritual life is not always joyful or exciting. I have shared about the many years that I denied God and the joy of returning to a life of spirit and worship. I was so excited I was insufferable. I could not pass by a church without walking inside to see the sanctuary and spend time in prayer. On my days off I would visit Catholic churches, and would literally spend two and three hours in prayer. I was driving my wife a little crazy.

Then suddenly something changed. I started getting bored and restless. I could not sit more than fifteen minutes in prayer before getting fidgety. I went to my Priest, Father Immanuel, and asked him about it. I thought maybe I had lost whatever it was that I had found. I didn’t understand why my prayer time felt so empty, or why church no longer excited me. He laughed, and said “Good. Maybe now God can use you!”

Father Immanuel taught me something I had not known at that time: our relationship with God  is  exactly that: a relationship. It goes through the same kinds of phases that our human relationships go through. Just like falling in love with my wife, I had fallen in love with God. The first exciting flush of romance had come to an end. Now came the building of something with more substance, something enduring, something that required commitment, endurance, faithfulness. Both in my relationship with my wife and in my relationship with God, there are wonderful moments when romance is real, but there is something deeper that endures and is richer: real love, person to person, person for person.

We’ve all known people who fall in love with love rather than with a person. When the initial flush of romance recedes, they begin to look elsewhere for that emotional high. Some people go from relationship to relationship, chasing that feeling, the excitement of romance. Sadly, they may never experience the beauty of mature love. Romance is fun, but real love, mature human love, is intended to be directed toward the person, not the emotional high of romance.

Life, love, and faith all include harder, more difficult, and even tragic experiences.

Richard Felix writes about the last years he spent with his wife, Vivian, who died from cancer. In a wonderful book The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God, he writes candidly about the emotional and spiritual turmoil of the experience. He quotes from Vivian’s diary:

I am trying to rejoice and praise you in the midst of my difficulties and fears, but at the same time I don’t like it and I want everything to go back to how it used to be – When all was well with my world. Now my world and my future are different. I will live with cancer as a reality for the rest of my life.[2]

We know that these things are devastatingly real. We can wonder where God is in the middle of all of this. Some find God very close. For others, God seems distant, if not absent. We can feel angry at God, disappointed and even betrayed. For many, the reality of suffering makes belief in God difficult if not impossible.

Mature faith, faith that endures, must somehow grapple with the reality of suffering, our own, and that of others. Mature faith even challenges us to embrace the suffering of others in the work to end it; there is where God’s love needs to be expressed and experienced most.

The mystery we inhabit includes the reality that God does not protect us from suffering, but rather walks through it with us. It is often in suffering where God is most present, even when we are not able to see, feel, or sense it. Something deep in us and in our relationship with God changes when we discover God with us in the middle of the dark and even tragic experiences.

Vivian wrote in her diary: “Jesus I cling to your cross – if this is your cross, let me take it joyfully and be worthy of the cross you have chosen for me.” [3] I don’t know that I have her vision or courage, but I hope I can learn from her, and others I have met like her.

Even apart from the tragic side of life, those who seriously pursue a spiritual life experience those periods in which God simply seems far away, and prayer itself is difficult and without consolation. The saints like Mother Teresa write of devastating periods of spiritual darkness. St John of the Cross wrote an extended prayer/poem on this side of the spiritual life titled “The Dark Night of the Soul.”

I do not consider myself to be anything close to saintly, or to be a model of the spiritual life. I am an ordinary pastor trying to be faithful and to serve the church. Please know that I do experience periods in my spiritual walk, sometimes extended periods, in which my prayer life feels dull and is difficult. It feels as if I am talking to myself. Studying scripture is dry. Church is good, but not terribly exciting. I would guess that those who read this know what I am talking about.

Most of the great spiritual writers say that this is normal, to be expected, and is perhaps even an important experience through which we mature in faith and grow closer to God. Periods in which there are no burning bushes to be found, when God feels painfully absent, are woven into the texture of our spiritual lives.

Gerald May, another writer on the spiritual life suggests that this experience is essential, if we are to grow closer to the living God, rather than stay attached to images we carry with us that need to be left behind. He writes:

It is not God who disappears, but only our concepts and images, and sensations of God. This relinquishment occurs to rid us of our attachment to those idols and to make possible a realization of the true God who cannot be grasped by any thought or feeling. At the time though, it seems like abandonment or even betrayal.[4]

These periods of spiritual dryness are important to our spiritual maturity and growth. Old things must give way to new. They are times of purging and pruning.

The same way caterpillars enter a chrysalis phase, and snakes shed their skins, to mature in faith we have to shed what no longer fits, to let go of some things we hold dear,  to change. We cannot stay locked into the same images and experiences of God; God is more than all of them. We cannot cling to our feelings. We must learn to cling to God. Maturing is not always easy.

What are we to do when we are experiencing spiritual dryness? Most recommend being gentle with ourselves. They advise not forcing ourselves to do more than we are able to, but to continue with our prayer, our worship, our work, and to trust that God is still present in us and to us. God is at work in the silence, deep within our spirits. Times of refreshment will return.

Thomas Merton writes this:

The Christian contemplative, even when he fears that his prayer is hopelessly sterile and distracted, contradicts his own fears by the very intensity of the anguish by which he longs for God…Continue to seek God in love….and you will find Him.[5]

In these periods of dryness, more may be happening in us that we know. We may be maturing in our understanding of God. We may be letting go of older things that are no longer sufficient for us. God may be drawing us toward things that are deeper and richer.

What counts, finally, is faithfulness and trust. Just as there is great beauty in human love that endures over a lifetime, so there is in a life of enduring faithfulness to God.

I write this post to correct an overstatement that might lead people to think that the religious life is one of pursuing religious highs. Those experiences can be wonderful, but they are not what this faith walk is about. In the end it is about growing in the love and knowledge of the living God. It is about becoming fully alive and fully human. It is about learning how to love. And the path is not always easy.


[1] Time Magazine, Aug. 23, 2007, Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith” Read more: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415,00.html#ixzz0yOrWoa1O

[2] Felix, Richard, Rob Wilkins, The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God. Tyndale House, 2004.  41.

[3] Felix, Richard, Rob Wilkins, The School of Dying Graces: Lessons on Living from Two Extraordinary Journeys Toward God. Tyndale House, 2004.  43.

[4] May, Gerald, A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth: The Dark Night of the Soul, Harper, 2004. 146.

[5] Merton, Thomas, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation, Harper, 2003.  102-3.