It was worn, tested, tried, and true. I repeated it probably millions of times over those earlier years when I first fell in love with the spiritual discipline of silence, of making room for God to move in ways that involved only clearing my mind, cultivating a space, and ushering in a countercultural reverence for stopping when the world refused to stand still.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve never really been able to get my mind around this word, why I’m not so good at abiding, or even praying about it.
I confess that recently my abiding has become dusty and decrepit, just like my centering prayer practice, beholden and bent to the cluttering of my life in which I’ve allowed little space for anything other than tasks and work and running–little space for silence, breath, let alone God.
And yet, in the recesses of my soul, God whispers more countercultural wisdom–that more can even be done with less rigor and muscle and strength. That, just as it’s been in the deliciousness of these last few mornings, when I’ve sat idle, letting the waking silence wash over me, I’ve felt most refreshed, most awake, most alive.
There’s this mystery about life with God, how when we resort to doing wholly nothing, that nothingness becomes holy in its luxury and extravagance, a sacrifice, an intention, a heartiness that can’t be achieved or earned and is yet, so much purer and better and good than all my blustery days.And that openness gives life and purpose and wisdom to our work and our justice and our advocacy–it exceeds us, because it so importantly comes for God and not from us.
This season I’ve been intentionally quiet, quiet mostly in the mornings but also quiet on the blog. This Advent, I’ve tapped back into my practice of Lectio and Centering Prayer. I’ve been reading the prophetic scriptures from Isaiah and the journey to Bethlehem in Luke as the Syrian city of Aleppo crumbles, lives are lost, and great fear reigns throughout our world.
I haven’t known how to respond to all the darkness, have you?
I should speak out, I think, say something like Isaiah, the prophet, reminding us how to follow a God who is not of this world, a king who is not violent, but gentle and humble and an outsider.
Is silence surrender in the face of such great evil, especially in a season that proclaims resounding joy, reconciliation, and peace?
I strive to work for justice in fits and spurts, donating, signing petitions, calling my congresspeople, but in the mean time, in a faraway land from where our savior was born, I hope that my silence meets God’s faithfulness. You see, what I have always found so powerful about centering prayer is that I’m not doing anything–and that’s the point. Because if prayer is just one more thing that we do, let alone one more thing that I presume to muster of my own wisdom and accord, then it is anything but a holy offering or a right relationship to God.
And so as we wonder how to respond, I wonder, whether as always, if it isn’t less about us and more about God–God’s saving action in the world? I am patient in this season to listen but not to listen without responsibility. I listen and trust and charge God with all God is always doing to offering healing, respite, and reprieve. And I wait for God to give me the words, the actions, and the steps to be an instrument of peace this Advent season.
If you’re interested, there are over 30 posts in the category “Centering Prayer” on the blog.
Here are also a few posts from past Advent reflections and practices:
Finally, I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who are struggling in waiting this season. It strikes me that waiting and silence feel particularly cheap in a season where this so much violence and need. What is God teaching you? Where is God leading you?
I have been thinking lately about how helpful it is to reframe major challenges in life as adventure.
You know how sometimes you’ll be going through something and someone will try to comfort you by saying, well, it will make a great story later, won’t it? What if we could embrace the great story now?
It sounds crazy, but I think my life is just as much, if not more of an adventure, here in the everyday with a baby, classes, and trying to be faithful to God as it was living in China and traveling the world. I’m trying to be grateful for the adventure as I’m living it rather than tomorrow or in a couple years. I’d love to hear how you do that in your lives!
It’s finally a little warmer, though there’s still heaps of snow on the ground. Yesterday our little family took a lovely, cozy walk through the snow. I just love how it crunches under your feet. About a year ago, a friend gave us the children’s book, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, because our daughter, who will turn one next weekend, was born in between two snow storms. It is my favorite children’s book that we own, and I’ve been reading it to her a lot lately and reminiscing about her coming into the world amidst slow flakes coming down in the wee hours of the morning.
Yes, I’m adult, yes, I was raised in Wisconsin, but there’s still something so magical to me when it snows. I remember my husband trying to describe snow to his students in South China who had never seen such a thing. They were incredulous and full of wonder. I wonder if they will ever see it snow in their lifetime.
Sure, it gets cold out here. But life is quite the adventure anyway.
I’d forgotten that what sent me on this deep spiritual quest during Lent was the increase in silence in my life since the birth of this baby, and the subsequent invitation to let God fill those silences. Since that realization, I’d picked up Foster’s book in an effort to be more intentional about my spirituality, and therefore, I’d been the one filling the silence with all sorts of things, from counting precious hours of sleep to pondering the tasks for the day ahead, and even my devotional study.
This is not another mommy guilt blog about how I should have been treasuring the moments with my infant suckling at my breast, but rather a mere realization that I hadn’t been faithful enough in those moments to allow God’s voice to be louder than my own. In a previous post, I shared Foster’s words about how our fears about entering into the silence often reflect a distrust of God, and for me it’s no different. I recently read this post from the author of the blog, Becoming Minimalist, in which he ponders our collective societal aversion to silence. Joshua Becker writes, “While anyone can experience silence at any time by finding a quiet place to sit for an extended period of time, I have found solitude does not occur naturally in our noise-centered world. It must be intentionally pursued by each of us.”
In my own post on “The God of Silence,” I talk about the value for me in practicing centering prayer and reframing the experience of silence not as one of absence but of presence.
But I still struggle.
I still doubt over and over whether God will truly meet me in the silence.
But what if God was already there? What if the essence of God was that God goes before us, is ever-present, always waiting on us when we call?
Perhaps that was why some of the words from the liturgy this weekend at church seemed to jump off the page. We prayed together, confessing, “Fear and worry hold us back. We confess that we try our very best, carrying the weight ourselves. We gladly hand some of our worry and fear to you today.”
What a simple action, I thought, handing our worry and fear over to God, and yet we cling to these things as if we love them more than peace, hope, and love.
And as we took communion, we spoke, “When we come to this table together, we trust God will satisfy our hunger and our thirst. Jesus shared this meal with a hungry crowd long ago and he shares it with us today. Let us bring our hunger and our thirst to the table of the one who called himself the Living Bread.”
Fear and worry, hunger and thirst, these are the little that Jesus asks of us, and yet we cling to our noisy lives with such cowardice. I don’t know about you, but the thought that our mighty God wants our heartache, and that God is so pure and humble and innocent and present, moves me. The least I could do is listen, right?
And so I’m returning to that simple message on this foggy Tuesday morning. I’m returning to the silence with my ears attuned to the presence of God. I’m bringing my fear and my worry, my hunger and my thirst, and I’m trusting that God is already there, listening, as I listen for him.
“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless. We are so accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others. If we are silent, who will take control? God will take control, but we will never let him take control unless we trust him. Silence is intimately related to trust.”
—Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 100-101
Have you ever doubted whether God was really there because God’s silence seemed to indicate otherwise? Have you ever cried out to God, wondering how God could remain silent in the face of hardship, pain, or injustice?
Conversely, have you ever sat in a car or beside a friend or a family member in complete silence and felt deep companionship and comfort, but hardly any need to speak? Why is it that we can trust others with such deep, holy silences, and yet when we encounter silence in our spiritual lives, we assume that God is woefully absent?
One compelling aspect for me of adopting the discipline of centering prayer has been this reframing of the concept and experience of silence as the presence, rather than the absence of God in our lives. As Foster writes above, in the silence, God takes control from our greedy grasp, but God cannot do so if we refuse to trust God.
During this time of Lent, I invite you to reflect on where God has been silent in your life, and how you might cede some control and trust to God in those areas. As you do so, imagine God’s hands, busily, yet quietly working. Believe that silence does not indicate God’s absence, but rather God’s presence, God’s faithful accompaniment to you, in deep, holy, silent communion. Trust that after those dark nights of the soul, the sun will rise on another, better morning. And find it in your heart to let go and trust God with all of your life. Even and perhaps, especially when you feel weak and utterly helpless, our God may be silent, but God is there.
And, predictably, especially given the title of this blog and its content, I couldn’t agree more!
But I have to admit that I don’t always practice what I preach.
While I’ve been wildly productive when it comes to the dissertation and ticking things off the baby-prep list, I’ve been flittering away downtime with a host of media distractions.
This isn’t the end of the world, of course. Social media can be wonderfully connective, and much-needed breaks from the rigor of our working lives with tv, youtube, etc. are understandable. But when I think about what I really want to get out of life, I realize how much I don’t want to distract myself from what God’s doing. Rather than check out, I want to check in. And rather than emptying my mind, I want to be filled with the mind of God.
Through the distractions, I hear God’s invitation to breathe a little deeper. And this morning as my dear friend and I sat basking in the word of God, simply breathing together, we felt anew how good it is to simply be in the presence of God. I don’t love the phrase, “carving out space for God,” because I think it’s misleading to suggest that we’re the ones who should be doing the carving.
And yet, I think there’s something to be said for embracing the silence that God grants. There’s something to be said for choosing not to be distracted. And there’s certainly something truthful about remembering that the invitation to the spiritual life is just that, an invitation, which we can either accept, despite all its inconveniences, challenges, and grace, or decline for the meagerness of our own devices.
How can you embrace the silence, the invitation from God in your life to breathe a little deeper today, tomorrow, and this year?
But seeing as how evangelicals are claiming to hear God speak into their lives, and this has prompted Tanya Luhrmann to develop a new theory of the mind, in which people of faith train their minds to hear voices outside of their pysche, friends and colleagues eventually did ask me whether I hear God speak, audibly, as well.
I don’t really. Not audibly. No burning bushes…yet.
Sometimes, in fact, I don’t feel God at all, and I wonder if I’m “doing it all wrong.” If my faith tells me that God doesn’t draw lines between sacred and profane, like anthropologists, but that the Holy Spirit is in everything and everywhere, then why don’t I hear God speak like my evangelical friends?
It probably has something to do with my prayer practices, as Luhrmann has posited, but it also probably has something to do with God’s great, unchangeable nature, a theology of waiting, and God’s work being not only life-changing, but counter-cultural.
I’m not contesting a God who speaks–the Bible gives us plenty testimony to that effect, but I’m attempting to testify to a God who also speaks in the silences, in the pauses, through others, and behind the scenes. Did you ever wonder what happened in between Moses and God’s holy rendezvous, or Peter’s visions, or John’s breakfast with Jesus? Oh yeah, that’s right, the Israelites built a golden calf, Peter’s faith failed him in God’s darkest hours, and John and the others were straining to see the future of a movement that had lost their leader to death on a cross.
But God, God hadn’t forsaken them. God was behind the scenes. And so, even as the Bible tells the story of God’s relationship with God’s people, our humanity makes us gravitate toward the loudest voices, the greatest triumphs, rather than the trials, the silence, the humility, the work behind the scenes.
What God does behind the scenes, however, is great, too. When we release ourselves to both God’s on stage and off stage work God subtly equips us in ways that go unnoticed until we find ourselves in our times of greatest trial, need, or joy. God’s work is not always showy or attention-grabbing, but if you look for it, it’s everywhere, in the little acts of kindness and justice that people lend to one another without fanfare or media blitzes, but with great humanity and care. There were handfuls of people healed in the Bible, whom Jesus had humbly go on their way, while he continued his own humble journey to the cross.
I’m not suggesting that the God who speaks to you in prayer isn’t the same one that heals in secret, prays for us with sighs too deep for words, or equips with patience and diligence. Quite the opposite– they are, miraculously, one and the same. And yet, it’s simply clear why the loud, thunderbolt one gets our awe, astonishment, and praise.
For me, God, especially of late, is more behind the scenes, subtly, yet faithfully equipping, and speaking through those around me in voices of care, concern, and affirmation. I imagine that God was very much behind the scenes those horrific hours after the bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon. I pray deeply that God is behind the scenes for families in China who struggle to care for special needs children, or for places where bomb blasts are the stuff of everyday life.
For me, knowing and believing that God is behind the scenes is the hardest part of faith and prayer and life. But it can also be the greatest comfort to find that even when God isn’t speaking, God is always there, behind the scenes.
It’s just one of those weeks where despite the busy-ness, and the ups and downs, I’ve felt God’s presence so palpably, and I’m giving God praise.
I give God praise for speaking into the silence, for meeting us simply and whole-heartedly.
I give God praise for listening ears and spiritual guidance on the journey.
And I give God praise for fellowship.
Last night I had a phone call with a few girlfriends from seminary in which we got to affirm one another’s call, talk through challenges, and pray together. It reminds me how much we were meant as human beings to rejoice together–in community. And it made me realize all over again how powerful experiencing grace is, and how deserving of praise our God is for granting us grace.
When we look around and can see God’s hand in our lives, let us not take that for granted–let us praise God.
If we were having coffee this morning I would tell you that I love this time of year, because the year, stretched out before us, firmly in the future, is full of possibilities.
Perhaps you would remember that I love to set goals, but this year as I prayerfully considered what God was calling me to, I found myself penning more general statements about how I want to live my life, Pray Audaciously. Be Gracious of Heart. Approach teaching as service and writing and learning as discipline.
A few nights ago I sat in silence, and I felt my heart racing. I felt insecure. I’m insecure, because teaching is a new experience for me this semester, and when I think about needing to prove myself, I’m crestfallen. In my heart, I’m still yearning for China, and when I think of learning and serving, I often picture being hungry and cold with people somewhere else in the world, or preaching from a pulpit in a congregation. But I sat there and I waited for a word from God, and I heard that what God’s calling me to is, “sitting at your feet, childlike, attentive, waiting. It’s being a servant,” and my heart leapt as I thought, “and even I can do that.”
Approaching teaching as service reminds me that Jesus’ teaching was never about proving himself, or even about being right, but it was wholly relational, progressive, and above the fray. And because Jesus relied on God for the balance between these qualities in teaching, his teaching was life-changing.
Yesterday as I talked through some of these fears and excitements with my spiritual director, I realized that if I could just listen to my students with love and attentiveness, if I could just learn with them, I think I’d be doing enough and serving well. In the language of servanthood, teaching becomes less about doing things right or perfectly or best, and more about regarding the people in front of me with respect, reverence, and a gracious heart, and again, I think “even I can do that.”
I would go on to tell you that I intend to sit in silence this year to listen to God more often. I would tell you that I plan to say audacious prayers for China. Somewhere along the way, I think my heart became so troubled by not being there and not being able to “do” anything, and I think deep inside me, a little part of my faith died, when it comes to the people I love there who I feel are very confined by their circumstances. But lately I’ve been remembering that God changes hearts and lives, which is pretty much the greatest path, perhaps the only, toward changing circumstances, and I’ve resolved to pray boldly for China and its people.
And finally, I would tell you that yesterday I had a meeting with a professor who somehow saw through all my meandering writings of late, that my heart lies with foster moms and disabled children, and he encouraged me not to look for ways to make my dissertation topic bigger or more important, but to trust that this small topic can become bigger and greater and more compelling than I ever imagined. It was both overwhelming and heartening to hear such critique and advice–heartening because these are the stories I collected and want to tell, and overwhelming because I need to start a bit fresh with some applications and outlines and etchings.
But it’s a new year, and what better time to start fresh, right?
I remember vividly that my love affair with centering prayer began in my senior year of college.
I was pursuing a call to ministry, poised to move first to Puerto Rico and then onto Washington, DC to serve the poor, and becoming exhausted with finding myself betwixt and between empty praise and worship and stodgy skepticism. I longed for a place where the presence of God, not our wanton human wisdom, was paramount.
Somehow I found my way to the little Catholic circle on my Presbyterian campus, a motley crew led by a renegade lady who didn’t seem to think it weird that everybody called her Pastor and who was convinced that service and contemplation went together. In the little workshop in which she roped me in, she taught us the ins and outs of lectio, the intentional listening for God while reading scripture (in contrast to the very real Bible school temptation to try to unravel the whole meaning of the verses in just a few minutes).
We were reading Ephesians 3:14-18, incidentally one of my favorite passages since youth, closing our eyes and earnestly seeking God, and then going around and sharing the words or the phrases that stuck out to us. When the Pastor got to me, I shared my word, “grasp,” only she revealed to me that that word wasn’t actually in the text for today.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “that happens frequently,” with a smirk and a chuckle, and I was awestruck by how nonchalant this Catholic woman could be about minor miracles in our midst.
It turns out that repeatedly hearing the NIV version of that scripture growing up probably put that word in my head, but maybe God wanted me to hear it, too. When I began to come to the Catholic circle with regularity, where they not only closed their eyes and listened to scripture with their hearts, but sat for thirty minute silent prayer sessions, I also began to use grasp as my prayer word, to which I could return my heart, as I did with my eyes to the candle burning in the center of the room, if my mind wandered.
Pastor Barb, despite her high energy and her electric personality, had this ease about her, this sense that prayer was about so much more than words, and that communion with God was meaningful even when it didn’t feel like anything, even when nothing happens.
As far as my own life is concerned, the mystery of centering prayer seems to be just as much about what happens outside of the prayer as in it. During nearly six years of practicing centering prayer in the barrios of Puerto Rico, in our nation’s capital, and on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, that word grasp took me on a journey from grasping for God, to realizing that God has been ever and always grasping for me.
“Maybe I am getting in best when nothing happens. Maybe I am on to something when there is no reward for me. Maybe the closest I can be to awareness of holy is just to be with the mysterious attraction that the Creator put in me. And, maybe when I don’t even sense that, still the transforming work of Christ goes on, unknown to me. Maybe that’s just the point: no effort on my part, only divine action.”
But what’s active in centering prayer is explicitly not the mind–the mind’s to be quieted to allow for the Spirit to grow, reside, and even meander. My discipline has changed as I’ve grown. Whereas earlier on, I was very conscious of clearing the mind and letting go of all thoughts, I’ve become less legalistic and more open to some of the lingering, nagging voices that exhibit themselves in that silence, more open to the myriad manifestations of God’s presence.
I’ve closed my eyes in just about every fabulous place I’ve ever had the privilege of traveling to. But I’ve never regretted those moments of silence, nor have I ever been really alone. You see, doing centering prayer in community way back in my college days always made sense to me. It’s not an easy thing to commit to those fifteen or thirty minutes on your own, but with safety in numbers, it’s somehow easier to open up to God fully and freely.
At Princeton Seminary, we’d sit in my crowded dorm room and attempt to block out the stress and the theology and the gods we often worshipped to welcome God in a very intentional way. And in China, my dear friend joined me over skype, across an ocean, and a twelve-hour time difference, and yet the practice couldn’t have been more fruitful. She says that after all these years, because we both still have a hard time with silence, it sometimes helps her to look up and see my peaceful face, the ups and downs of the breaths in and out of my chest, and my eyes closed, and and I feel the same way.
Believe it or not, silent prayer isn’t meant to be a solitary, distant practice. As Pastor Barb made clear back in the day with her penchant for social action, it’s meant to take us from detachment, to intention, to communion with God, and into community. I know it sounds impossible, bogus, even, that a practice of silence and contemplation would awaken Christians to community, to love and to justice. And I know it’s not for everyone, my own husband doesn’t take refuge in silence the way I do, and I think that just speaks even more clearly to God’s myriad of manifestations.
This one, this discipline, is not for everyone. But if you’ve ever struggled to hear God above all the other voices, if you’ve ever lost touch with your heart or your spirit, or wondered about the work of the Holy Spirit, you may want to start closing your eyes and listening to your breath, reading scripture with the eyes of your heart, seeking communion rather than answers, and being open to God’s presence not just in these times of silence but everywhere in the world.