Silence and stillness are the two most radical spiritual disciplines that need to be injected into a paradigm shift of how we do discipleship in our churches. They are indispensable to slow our people down so they cultivate a first-hand, personal relationship with Jesus.
My transformative experience with these disciplines took place in 2003 with a community of Trappist monks and the Taize Community in France. I remember sitting at Taize, and struggling, during the 8-10 minutes of silence that was part of each morning, afternoon and evening prayer.
Yet my relationship with has Jesus changed dramatically as I slowly learned to integrate silence and stillness into my daily life. Scriptures such as the following came alive:
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Ps. 46:10
Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. Ps. 37:7
Moses answered, “Do not be afraid…The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Ex. 14:13-14
When you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Ps. 4:4-5
Be silent before the Sovereign Lord, for the day of the Lord is near. Zeph 1:7
If silence is the practice of quieting every inner and outer voice to be attentive to God, stillness is the practice of letting go of our grip on life to relax in Him (see Peter Craigie, Psalms 1-50, WBC, Vol.19). They are closely related, but slightly different.
These spiritual practices turn life upside down. We normally determine the agenda and pace of our lives. We go our own way, the very essence of sin. When we sit in silence and stillness, we begin the process of allowing God to be the center of our world. We let go of control and surrender to Him.
*Pete Scazzero is the Founding Pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, NYC. After serving as Senior Pastor for twenty-six years, Pete now serves as a Teaching Pastor/Pastor at Large. He is the author of two best-selling books: The Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. He is also the author of The EHS Course and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Day by Day. Pete and Geri are founders of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a groundbreaking ministry that equips churches in deep, beneath-the-surface spiritual formation paradigm that integrates emotional health and contemplative spirituality. For more information, visit www.emotionallyhealthy.org.
My apologies to the Carpenters, but I like rainy days.
I spent the first half of my life in wet climates: western Canada, Germany, England, Seattle. Most of the last half has been in San Diego, with its incessant sun and persistent 70-degree weather. So when I awoke this morning to the sound of rain pouring down on the metal roof of our condo, I looked forward to cozying up on the couch in the early morning quiet, sipping my coffee, and looking out the window at the rain.
The showers from heaven nourish our parched California dirt. Four years of drought have taken their toll, even here in the temperate climes of this city tucked between beach and mountains. The raindrops remind me that God cares for us, that He won’t let us languish forever on the baked clay. Rain brings hope, life.
But as I sat in my living room, enjoying the downpour in dry comfort, my thoughts turned to others—to those for whom the rain brings not hope, but fear; not comfort, but dismal cold and struggle. I thought of the many homeless outside my walls: men and women whose best hope is to find a sheltered store entrance, at least until the library opens at ten; boys and girls whose only hope is to dry off a little before school…where they anticipate a small meal and a few hours indoors.
I think of the families living thirty miles south, in makeshift homes of plywood and leaky tarps that dot the now-muddy hillsides around Tijuana, Mexico. I’ve spent time there, helping to build new, dry, secure homes. But concrete floors and stucco walls only offer so much; they can protect from rain, but not the cold.
God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:45)
I don’t enjoy the rain because I am good and just; they don’t dread it because they are evil. But if rain is to me a blessing, how might I pass on that blessing to those for whom it seems a curse? How can I serve, love, help those who look on the clouds not with hope but with fear?
For the past week I have been practicing the art of silence, encouraged through a Lenten Guide published by my sister’s church.
“Real silence,” writes Sister Jeremy Hall, “…is a creative waiting, a welcoming openness to God, to our deepest selves, to others… to beauty and truth and goodness, to mystery—and to the word of Scripture that reveals God, and to the Word who is God’s Son.”
Some have called silence a discipline, and it is that. But I have been practicing it more as an art: creative, imperfect, incomplete, but at the same time beautiful and inspiring. The primary way I decided to practice silence was by “fasting” from Facebook. I am not as addicted to that as some people I know, but apparently far more than I thought. After deleting the app from my phone, I found myself surprised by how few other apps on my phone I want to look at in spare moments. I also realized how much I rely on Facebook for social interaction; …a bit scary, given how thin is the veneer of relationship through social media. But at this particular time in my family’s life, when deep, meaningful flesh-and-blood relationships are scarce, I am grateful for even that thin veneer, so the break has been a challenge.
My silence this week has not been merely an abstention from social media, however. I have also taken moments of silence in various forms throughout the day. The Lenten Guide includes a Bible passage to read each day, and I have given myself permission to not read the whole passage, but to stop at a word or phrase or sentence and ponder it. That may sound ridiculously trite to you, but for a recovering legalist it is a major step on the road to recovery!
At other times I have taken a break from my work and just sat for a few moments. Not because the law or the union says I’m supposed to, and not because I particularly feel like I need a rest; I just stop. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t do anything on that break. This, too, is a psychological battle against the influences of my earlier years, when it was drilled into me that I needed to always be “making the most of every opportunity.” But sometimes, I’ve found, just sitting, doing nothing, enjoying what God has put before me is making the most of every opportunity.
Perhaps hardest for me has been to not read or write anything. I am in an unusual period right now, unlike any other I can recall in my adult life, when I have great freedom to read and write and think what I want. After eight years of graduate school, I no longer have professors giving me assignments. Away from pastoral ministry, I do not presently have the demands of preparing sermons, analyzing giving trends, or writing small group discussion guides. So I choose my own books and my own pace to read; I choose what I want to write and when to write it—and am finding a surprising amount of inspiration in my present employment. But since I want to read and write, and have the opportunity to do both, there is a discipline of silence in choosing not to read or write.
Our lives are filled with noise; some good, some bad, some indifferent. Just as God “sabbathed” (ceased, rested) from his work after creation—and instructed us to sabbath—so, too, we need to rest from the noise of life, whether that noise is talking or writing, reading or listening, emailing or Facebooking. Silence is sabbath.
One week. 400 miles. Seven schools. Eight assemblies. Three evening programs. Three morning services. One four-hour class. Back-to-school night. Date night. Whew!!
For the first time in too long, I took a breather this morning. I opened my Bible to the Psalms of Ascents—those psalms that ancient Israelites would sing on their pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the annual feasts; psalms that called reminded them of God’s presence, his power, his protection…even their unfaithfulness to him. I was drawn to Psalm 121, the second in this collection:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
This morning, I needed to lift up my eyes to the Lord, the source of my help and energy. I was reminded of Jesus’ habit of going off by himself, whether late at night or early in the morning, to spend time with his Father. I don’t do that enough—or well. Those times were not only rejuvenating for him, they also kept him focused on his priorities.
In the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark, we get a glimpse into what I expect was a typical day in Jesus’ life. He comes into a town (Capernaum, verse 21) on the Sabbath and goes into the synagogue to teach. While there, a man with an unclean spirit comes in, whom Jesus proceeds to heal. Afterward, Jesus goes over to his friend Simon’s (for lunch and a nap, perhaps?), where he finds Simon’s mother-in-law in bed with a fever. He heals her. By evening, Simon’s front porch is crowded with the town’s sick and demon-possessed—just the kind of folks you want hanging around the neighborhood, right?! In fact, Mark says, “the whole city was gathered together at the door.” (Mark 1:34) And Jesus, being Jesus, heals them. He casts out a bunch of demons. And then, presumably, he goes to bed.
Early the next morning, Jesus gets up, gets out of town, and prays. This is where it gets hard, particularly for those of us who are doers. The teaching, the healings—those aren’t the hard things; we thrive on the action and, yes, on the attention and affirmation they bring. And they’re good things, important things, even God-honoring things. But Jesus knows what is too easy for me to overlook: the power to do those good and important works comes from the Father, and the power comes through a relationship with him. Not from doing things for him, but from being with him. So Jesus gets alone and prays.
As if this isn’t hard enough, this getting quiet with God, what comes next is almost as amazing to me. Simon and some others track down Jesus and tell him, “Everyone is looking for you.” Undoubtedly, many of the previous evening’s healed patients had gone and told their friends, who gathered in the breaking dawn on Simon’s porch. Some undoubtedly wanted to be healed, but I suspect that many more just wanted to see a healing for themselves. And Jesus’ shocking response is, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”
Did he really say that? Did Jesus—the loving, compassionate, healing son of God—just turn his back on sick people desperate to be made well? Yes. You see, Jesus knew what his mission was: to proclaim the kingdom of God. More than once, Jesus healed for the express purpose of glorifying God (see, for example, John 9). He healed out of compassion and in response to expressions of faith (see Mark 5:25-34). But Jesus’ primary purpose was not to heal; it was to proclaim. Even his great prophecy-fulfilling claim in Luke 4:16ff (cf. Isaiah 61) is not primarily about showing compassion; it is about proclaiming good news.
And so, after a hectic day of teaching and healing, woke early, got alone, and prayed. The time alone with his Father helped him focus on his mission and rejuvenated him for the days ahead: more healings, more people clamoring for a piece of him, more people wanting more from him than just the truth.
Our days are busy and hectic. Work, kids, school, chores, spouse…all clamor for a piece of us until we feel we need to run away screaming! But don’t wait that long. Get some time away where you can be quiet before God and just soak in his presence. It’s not always easy, especially if you’re not in the habit. You may need to start small: seven minutes in the car before you walk into work; or thirty minutes in a coffee shop once a week. Read Psalm 121 (or Psalm 131—it’s even shorter!) and reflect on God’s help. Lift your eyes and heart to God.
Then do it again. Tomorrow, the next day, next week (but don’t wait too long). Make it a habit. Get time alone, quietly, regularly, with God. Soon seven minutes will not be long enough; once a week will not be often enough. But I know that as you do this, you will become refreshed and will be able to refocus on what God has in store for you.