“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10 (NRSV)
Have you ever been forced to sit in silence? Most people today fall somewhere on a spectrum between being aware that they hate every excruciating second of silence and simply being unaware how much the quiet bothers them because they have never had to experience it.
If you have been in the church for any length of time, you have probably sat through some youth group or leadership training that uses this fact about people as a sort of parlor trick. It usually starts with the leader asking, “Have you ever noticed how we can’t sit in silence anymore?” and then proceeds to make everyone sit in uncomfortable silence for minutes while pretending they’re immune or very spiritual.
My first experience with this of silence idea was in college. I was taking a class on Christian spirituality—a crazy, fun, and sometimes boring dive into some of the ancient practices of the Christian faith. Our professor wanted to expose us to various means of interacting and communing with God. We dove into fasting, scripture reading and memorization, study (duh), and even celebration. However, far and above anything else, our professor wanted us to experience silent, contemplative prayer. We would begin every class with 5-10 minutes of unmoving, penetrating silence. He claimed being able to sit in this would lead us to a quieter inner-self through which we could commune with God.
I could not imagine a worse, more boring fate.
I became a Christian in a charismatic church, and, at the risk of generalizing, if there is one thing we are not especially good at, it is silence. It might be hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it. It’s not that we think silence is bad, it’s just that, in a church movement that places special emphasis on things like speaking in tongues, giving words, prophetic speaking, full praise bands, 24/7 prayer rooms, and extemporaneous worship, there isn’t a lot of room for us to sit in silence. We’re busy! The buzz words for us are “activity,” “manifestation,” “works,” “power,” and, perhaps most of all, “expectation.” These aren’t words that often coexist with words like “silence,” “waiting,” and “stillness.”
So now it’s 2018 and I’m reading a book on contemplative prayer, having traumatic flashbacks of what seemed like endless silence I was forced to sit through in college (thankfully, I had my smartphone to entertain me), and wondering how the author could claim that this type of prayer, prayer that calls us to simply listen and focus on a phrase or two, could possibly help us hear from the Lord when we have good worship music, books, and sermons that help us do that. Despite my skepticism, I decided to give it a try.
My first go at contemplative prayer started like most. I found a quiet place to sit comfortably for 20 minutes and started breathing deeply, focusing on the oxygen going in and out of my body. I meditated on these words:
(Breathe in) Be Still and Know that I am God
(Breathe out) Be Still and Know
(Breathe in) Be Still
(Breathe out) Be
For the first 5-10 minutes, my thoughts flew to a million places. The conversation my wife and I had yesterday. The stuff on my to-do list. The homework that was literally piling up as I sat being “unproductive.” Boredom. Anxiety. Fear. Self-doubt. Pride.
And then, out of nowhere, I felt God’s presence. I refocused on the words I was meditating on.
Be Still and Know that I am God
Be Still and Know
It was so different from what I had experienced before. I had received words for people that proved accurate, spoken in tongues in joy and mourning, and been brought to tears in loud worship rooms, but never had I felt so in tune with the Holy Spirit than in that moment.
Some of you will read that as a critique of the charismatic or supernatural gifts and either be disappointed or satisfied. It’s not that. Some stopped reading the moment I started talking about contemplative prayer because you think it’s mystical nonsense. That’s fine.
What I’m learning is that we need the charismatic and the prophetic in its robust pneumatology that brings heaven to earth in profound and mysterious ways as the Holy Spirit moves. We need to look for the Spirit’s very real guidance in our lives and be expectant so that we may fill the world with praise for His glory.
However, at times we also need to stop, sit down, and acknowledge the Spirit’s smaller, more intimate voice. We need to give ourselves permission to stop moving and producing and know that He accepts us without all of that. We can quit filling our minds with movies and TV shows and music and noise and take a moment to hear that He loves us in the loud and in the quiet.
Glory to God. Amen.
Jordan McCain, New City Stories Contributor