Welcoming Silence

November 18th, 2019
This article is featured in the Intentional Spirituality (Nov/Dec/Jan 2019-20) issue of Circuit Rider

I once attended a week-long experiential conference that concentrated on helping people name what was going on in the room in the present moment. All the conventional distractions were stripped away  you couldn’t talk about the wonderful holiday club you just ran, the funny thing that happened on the way to the funeral, or even the profound book you just read. You had to talk about now. After the 30 participants had been given their joining instructions, the conference chair simply looked at his watch and said, ‘Well, we have 35 minutes now to reflect on the experience of becoming part of the conference.’ As I slowly realized that that meant we were going to sit here together for an eternity before someone said something, my stomach knotted up in panic. But gradually I recalled long periods spent in silent prayer before and during theological college, and the respect I had for those who were comfortable in the silence. And I realized again the power of silence and the fact that those in ministry have to become comfortable in that silence.

Becoming comfortable in silence means that you believe God may be about to do something in any and every given moment; but equally, that this may not be such a moment. So you have to sit  if you have the opportunity to sit  in such a position that communicates both of these possibilities. How you sit and how you stand communicates what you think God is likely to do. I believe in sitting with both feet on the ground and my back a little bit forward of vertical. I try to keep my hands together as much as possible. I believe in standing as straight as possible with my hands together as much as possible. What this is saying is, I want to be alert and attentive to what God is saying and doing and eager to respond; I want to treat each moment as a prayer unless it’s obviously something else, so I will keep my hands in an attitude of prayer unless they have something else to do; and yet I could be here for a long time so I don’t want to be so stiff that my discomfort will soon communicate itself to others.

This stillness in ministry is fundamentally dependent on faith and confidence that God really is working in and through the most explicit gifts God gives to the Church. Just to be clear, I’m going to reiterate those. God is present in baptism. When faith and sacrament come together, God really does raise people to new life. God is present in Holy Communion. When bread is broken and faith is alive, God really does create a new society shaped by cross and resurrection. God is present in Scripture reading and in preaching. When the gospel is heard and faithfully received, God really does transform hearts and lives. God is present in personal and corporate prayer. The Holy Spirit speaks with us to the Father through the Son; even when we have faith but no words, the Spirit sighs on our behalf.

"Face to Face: Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger" by Samuel Wells. Order here: http://bit.ly/36lNHWb

If you believe these things, your ministry may be one of silence, and stillness, and blessed assurance, and Sabbath. If you do not believe these things, your ministry will be too easily given to the pursuit of idols. The idol of exhaustion, when you lay at God’s feet your own weariness as evidence of faithfulness. The idol of popularity, when you ask for God’s blessing given that all speak well of you. The idol of your own poverty, given that you seek God’s absolution because you never used a teabag only once, or claimed any decent expenses, or allowed anyone in your household to have any fun whatsoever. The idol of the perfect marriage or the blissful clergy family, given that you created the illusion of a flawless domestic idyll in the absence of any more tangible kingdom to promote. The idol of signs and wonders, the exponentially growing youth group, the astonishing enquirers’ programme, the well-chosen words at the regional meeting, the amazing gang ministry.

Don’t get me wrong, these things may well be fruits of the Spirit; but they only have power if the Spirit is embodied and rooted in the power of silence. And that silence is faith and confidence that God is still God, that God is still active in the ways God always has been active. And that fundamentally all that is required of those in ordained ministry is to believe in those things so much and to cherish them so dearly and to offer them so tenderly and to explain them so vividly and be renewed by them so humbly that they become the shape of everything else in the lives of those they love and serve.

If so, your ministry will be a Sabbath for those who encounter you. It will be a reminder that God works while we sleep, and so a permission to those who meet you to rest. It will be an embrace of those qualities and those gifts in those around you that others have been too busy or too threatened or too self-absorbed to see and encourage. It will be an invitation into a place of depth, but an exhilarating invitation because it is depth without fear, depth as an adventure in which one is expecting to be met by God. It will be a place and a time of renewal where others rediscover who they are and who God is.

And it can be almost all of these things without your ever saying one word. This is the power of silence. If you haven’t learned this power, all the words in the world or the prayer book aren’t much help to you. But if you have learned this power, and learnt to enjoy it as the power of God, then you will have found the secret of the heart of God: that there is wind, and wind can do much; there is earthquake, and earthquake is awesome; and there is fire, and fire is dazzling. But then there is silence. And in silence God may speak and act or God may not. But if you have met God in the sound of an echoing silence, you will never be alone.

This article is an excerpt from Face to Face: Meeting Christ in Friend and Stranger. Printed with permission. All rights reserved.

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