Last month I talked about how the end of the year is a convenient time to look both backward and forward. Last week, Doug Lawrence's MME discussed the goal of bringing transcendence back to worship. So in this post I want to talk about something else that has gotten away from many of us in this brave-new-always-connected-smartphone-world: silence.
Music is a powerful thing. It releases chemicals in the brain that can be, at the very least, mood altering. There is an enormous temptation to cover everything in worship with "background music" that is subliminal underscoring to whatever is happening on the platform. After all, as humans, we are used to music being everywhere...starting with the elevator, and now extending to highly personalized in-ear ipod sound tracks...and we have learned to multi-task with a great deal of ease.
But (you knew that was coming, right?), as Robert Mathis points out in this article which originally appeared in Creator's September/October, 1990, issue, there comes a point where a healthy dose of silence is not just therapeutic, it is absolutely necessary to refocus upon the one we worship who doesn't need any aural aids to be transcendent.
An Invitation to Silence
Twelve noon. He was right on time for our luncheon meeting. To save a couple of minutes he parked by the sidewalk rather than use the parking lot. I saw him coming and was out the door as he was entering. Another car was exiting the church drive in front of us. My friend's thumb was a hair's width from the horn—”Come on, get moving,” he mumbled anxiously. We finally pulled out and drove to the restaurant nearest the church. The smiling, cheery hostess asked our names and said, “that will be fifteen to twenty minutes.” My friend rolled his eyes and huffed a heavy sigh. “Too long,” I said, picking up the signal that he was in a rush, “Let's try another place.” We were off and soon in another restaurant being served the ten-minute luncheon special.
That luncheon was not any different than the daily pace kept by many of us and our congregants. The reality is that the people of our congregations desperately need the “sanctuary” that the place and space of worship provide. One of the few places we still have to be centered and quiet is Sunday morning during worship. We're all aware of how easy it is to get caught up in the frantic pace of contemporary life–and it is just as easy to let that same rush be reflected in the tempo of worship. We feel pressed; there's only so much time people will sit in worship, and we have so much we want to offer them! Yet even the smallest of congregations can fill the worship time to over-flowing—forgetting that in the silence of worship, too, we can be filled.
The Bible is fraught with accounts that speak of meditation and silence. “He leadeth me beside the still water,” (Psalm 23:2). “Be still and know that I am God,” (Psalm 46:10). And there is the spellbinding account of Elijah running from Jezebel into the wilderness, depressed and scared, wanting to hear from God. Elijah listened for God in the wind, rain and fire, but God spoke from “the still small voice within,” (1 Kings 19). In the New Testament when Mary experienced the wondrous pageantry around the inception and birth of her child we are told that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart,” (Luke 2:19).
Even the occasional Bible reader would be quick to notice that Jesus made time for regular interludes to be in a “lonely place.” From each of those lonely places Jesus came with a new sense of direction, a strength of purpose that enabled him to know and do what God desired: “Let us go to the next towns” (Mark 1:38).
In corporate worship we have a magnificent opportunity to lead our people toward the model of inner quietness that can become one source of spiritual daily bread. Silence has a positive place in corporate worship. We often speak of prayer and meditation in the same breath; if prayer is talking to God, then meditation is listening to God...and silence is the door to meditation. Silence is preparation for that “still small voice within.” But where do we begin? What are the ways we can use silence in the already-full schedule of worship? How can we get beyond the anxiety of the moment to move into the quietness of God?
Finding peace within silence for yourself is a prerequisite. To attempt to lead a congregation in silence without being comfortable with it oneself would be a terribly awkward and anxious position. Silence and stillness are foreign territory to many worshippers. When congregants are traveling into this new territory they need to be led by a person who is comfortable with their own inner quietness.
Begin with your own inner quietness in the first few moments of awakening in the morning. Listen to the silence within yourself. Don't think any special thoughts–simply let the thoughts “think” you. Be aware of the thoughts and images that come into your mind.
As you become more comfortable with your own silence you could spend part of a day, or perhaps even an overnight at a retreat center in silence. Go alone; find a time when the retreat center is relatively empty. Take your own food if you can, to avoid commotion. If you need to talk to someone, keep your words simple and say what you need, then gently move back into the place of silence. If you can't get away to a retreat center, a sanctuary (preferably of another congregation) can provide a place of silence. Let it be a place where you can befriend the silence within. Later, when you lead corporate worship into the inner peace of silence, you will know this place and feel comfortable there where you invite the worshippers.
Silence can be incorporated into worship in any number of ways. During prayer, from a spirit of your own centeredness, gently invite the congregation to sit straight, feet on the floor, and listen to the still small voice within. Invite them to experience moments of silence that are the loving care of God for each one gathered, then remain in the silence. There is no need to keep speaking; there is no need for the organ or band to play. Just be... in the silence.
Silence is to be invited, offered, modeled, embraced and accepted. Silence, like so much of spiritual life, cannot be forced. Forced silence is a contradition in spirit. You could perhaps remove the external sounds and noises, but inner silence is more than external sounds. Let us seek to know the blessedness of silence. In the choreography of worship may we listen to the inner movements of our Lord. In the silence.
January is a month when many people make resolutions, most of which have probably been broken, or faded into distant memory by now. In encourage you to leave make time for silence in your daily routine. If you are uncomfortable with it at first, think of it as a discipline - if you still find it unproductive after two or three weeks, then perhaps you just can't slow down.
I can't predict how it will benefit you, but I can tell you that unless I spend some quiet time on a regular basis, I fall into the trap of "doing" all day every day instead of thinking and dreaming...and yes, figuring out how to "do" more efficiently. Click on my name below and email me about how it is working for you...I'd be interested to know.