“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” — Raymond Carver
I stayed up late a few weeks ago reflecting on an evening that snuck up and grabbed my heart in the most unexpected way. Just a few hours earlier I had been sharing life and worshipping with our microchurch community, when in the midst of an otherwise nondescript evening, something subtly significant transpired. I couldn’t sleep as I pondered all that I was feeling.
That night we were working through our typical order or liturgy together, just as we had done for the last several months prior to that. On this particular evening, though, as we communed around the dinner table, there was a heaviness in the air. Several in our community were processing through difficulties in their life and faith, leading to a level of transparency we had yet to experience in this newly formed spiritual family.
After journeying together through these things, as we studied the words of Jesus, we moved into something we practice every week — listening prayer. For me, this has been a new discipline, both individually and communally. I’ve spent decades telling God things, and have only recently been finding the immense power in stopping and allowing myself to listen. Thanks to the likes of Kierkegaard, Willard, and Foster, I’ve reoriented my spiritual life around including this practice, and I am discovering it is equally as powerful for the church as well. That is the story of that evening.
Our community sat there in the quiet for several minutes and then, for those willing, shared together what we felt God speaking to us. What followed was utterly beautiful. Person after person shared words of hope and words of challenge, and in the process demonstrated a deep desire to be faithful to both. Some of what poured out exposed the innermost longings in our souls.
Then all at once, we fell silent. With tears welling up in our eyes, some happy and some sad, unsure of what else could possibly be said, we sat there for a few brief moments just basking in the mystery of our faith and each other.
It was those few seconds I couldn’t escape as I laid my head on my pillow that night. In some strange sense, surrounded by new friends and engaging in the simplest form of church, I wondered if I had ever felt closer to God and his people than in that silence. No memory I could conjure up seemed to compare. Maybe it was the fact that we resisted that awful urge to squelch the silence by throwing out spiritual platitudes. Or maybe it was simply the fact that a group of newly formed friends could sit for a few moments and revel in the transcendence of a moment like that. We were all huddled at that table believing that God still speaks and were willing to admit that He’s speaking into our stories, thus revealing who we really are underneath the veneer and the bravado. Nothing else needed to be said.
As I reflected on all that had happened in those few seconds, replaying the details in my mind, I also thought about The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner in which he describes a similar phenomenon. It started thanks to a walk across the campus where he taught, one in which he witnessed what had the makings of a great sunset. On a random impulse, he walked into the classroom, shut off the lights, said nothing, and let the sunset soak through the windows.
“For over twenty minutes nobody spoke a word. Nobody did anything. We just sat there in the near-dark and watched one day of our lives come to an end, and it is no immodesty to say that it was a great class because my only contribution was to snap off the lights and then hold my tongue. And I am not being sentimental about sunsets when I say that it was a great class because in a way the sunset was the least of it. What was great was the unbusy-ness of it. It was taking unlabeled, unallotted time just to look with maybe more than our eyes at what was wonderfully there to be looked at without any obligation to think any constructive thoughts about it or any useful purpose later, without any weapon at hand in the dark to kill the time it took. It was the sense too that we were not just ourselves individually looking out at the winter sky but that we were in some way also each other looking out at it. We were bound together there simply by the fact of our being human, by our splendid insignificance in face of what was going on out there through the window, and by our curious significance in face of what was going on in there in that classroom. The way this world works, people are very apt to use the words they speak not so much as a way of revealing but, rather, as a way of concealing who they really are and what they think, and that is why more than a few moments of silence with people we do not know well are apt to make us so tense and uneasy. Stripped of our verbal camouflage, we feel unarmed against the world and vulnerable, so we start babbling about anything just to keep the silence at bay. But if we can bear to let it be, silence, of course, can be communion at a very deep level indeed, and that half hour of silence was precisely that, and perhaps that was the greatest part of it all.”
(You should probably read that again.)
It’s a strange irony that the kind of lived theology, the kind of deep hunger in our souls to truly know God and to hear His voice, isn’t something we’re quite sure how to access. Thus, our negligence drives our practices. Often, I’m afraid we settle for hearing about God and about His commands. Others seem to think that a concert-like experience is the place where they should experience God. We settle for these sorts of cheap alternatives, and in the process believe that’s the extent of what He desires for us. Yet, like me, when the quiet comes and with it God’s voice, something triggers deep in our core — this is what we were made for.
I couldn’t help but wonder that night if what Buechner described, and what I had experienced, was reflective of a much larger truth. Perhaps, just like my personal prayer life, ministry had become about talking and sheer output. That while I have often been convinced that a better sermon, a better service, a better doctrinal view, a better ministry program unlocked all the keys to growth in Christ, perhaps what was needed most was for me to be a little more aware and just flip the lights off from time to time, daring to be silent.
I know it might sound a little mystical or crazy, but I can’t help but ask myself if what we need in this era are practitioners and liturgies that encourage us to be quiet a little more and become ready to listen for God’s voice collectively. The good stuff we so hunger for doesn’t come cheap and it doesn’t come quick. It is instead a slow burn, the byproduct of pacing ourselves and truly participating in the lives, the moments, and the silence around us. It’s learning a new language of recognition that can only come from the compounded interest in the liturgy of ordinary, communal moments. Then and only then, do we begin to sense and experience truly hearing from God, and subsequently, discovering who each other are as well.
A couple of years back, I read an interview with Eugene Peterson in which he was asked about his outspoken affection for poets, writers, and artists. Peterson responded by saying he had gravitated to them because his faith needed them. That while so much of religious writing had settled for being didactic, faith and communing with God was about dialogue. “It’s dialectic,” he states. He goes on: “In that way, everything in scripture is conversation. God does not speak and then walk off. We don’t say something to God and walk off. So many people have questions about difficulty in prayer, and I think most of the misunderstanding takes place because they think they’re the sole speakers. But in a conversation, listening goes on.” For Peterson, artists (and poets specifically) are important because they’ve learned the art of paying attention. They’re our companions in learning to be attune and eventually becoming immersed in the conversation we were designed for with God.
While I couldn’t agree with Peterson more, I wonder why we in ministry have outsourced this skill to the arts. I’d argue it’s because most of us haven’t learned or experienced this ourselves. I know that’s been the case for me. Yet, if we dared ourselves to slow down, to be silent a little more and listen, I think we’d find a treasure trove of experience to pass on.
A.W. Tozer once said, “It is altogether possible to be instructed in the rudiments of the faith and still have no real understanding of the whole thing. And it is possible to go on to become expert in Bible doctrine and not have spiritual illumination, with the result that a veil remains over the mind, preventing it from apprehending the truth in its spiritual essence.” So friends, let’s embrace the mystery of our faith and trust the silence a little more. Let’s not become so overwhelmed with information and the pedagogic process that we miss the divine companionship we and our spiritual families were made for.