March 14, 2013

Silent Listen

Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken. - Isaiah 1

Throughout these Sundays in Lent, we’ve started our worship with a time of silence. Love it or loathe it, sitting together in protracted silence at least has the effect of showing us, by way of contrast, just how noisy the world can be. Not long ago, I pulled into a gas station and was astonished to discover that all 8 pumps had flatscreen monitors mounted on top of them. Each screen had it’s own ads running, and you could hear them all at once. I used to get some of my best thinking done, pumping gas. No more. Now I get to hear about 2 for 1 pickles and home equity loans.

We live in especially noisy times.

I was struck by many aspects of the papal announcement in Rome this week, but not the least by his call for a time of shared silent prayer. Ten thousand people crammed into St. Peter’s square, all of them silent. The television commentators hardly knew what to do with themselves. I suppose in TV Land, and by its tutelage so also in our busy lives, silence is usually a problem to be solved, a gaping hole to be filled with more disposable banter.

But not for us who follow Jesus. Silence is not a burden, but a gift ... if we are open to it. The first Lenten Sunday’s time for silent prayer prompted one wise member among us to point out a simple fact of letters that had never before occurred to me: The words SILENT and LISTEN share the same letters. Beautiful. And that fact seems illuminating for us believers. The point of silence in worship is, ultimately, to make room in our spirits to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. We empty ourselves of all noise in order to make room for God’s pervasive word. In that way, silent prayer is another mode of fasting: deliberate restraint that makes room for reception.

When given the opportunity for shared silence in worship, we all might do well to pay attention to what comes crashing into that space, spiritually speaking. Those other voices that vie for our attention, those worries and wanderings and wants, these likely signal places in our lives in need of spiritual sequester. Silence unmasks our noisy spirits, and that’s why we avoid it so.

So if the silence is unbearable, if it brings about more agitation and restlessness than shalom and sanctuary, be brave and try to get to the bottom of what it is about intimate worship that vexes rather than blesses. After all, if we cannot be alone in silence with our own thoughts and feelings, there’s a good chance we likewise cannot welcome the Holy Spirit into our spirits. Maybe there is no room in our inn. Or, to say it positively, when we can quiet down the noise of our lives, even for two sacred minutes, we thereby make a little more room for the Spirit to do what it does so well: comfort, confirm, and challenge us with the word and way of Jesus.

What is silence in worship like for you? What can you determine about the noise in your life? Do you hear the Holy Spirit speaking into your spirit? What do you hear the Lord Jesus saying to you, his disciple and friend? ... and to us, one little portion of his great gathered body?

In what remains of Lent, and in every season, may all our silent prayers become listening prayers.