Tag Archives: silence

Let Go of Words

wordleA young man came to my office years ago looking for help with his marriage.  An older friend had recommended me because “Pastor Keller is really good at prayer.”   I was surprised and a bit flattered by the recommendation but also confused.   How would someone know that I was “good at prayer?”  The young man clarified his friend’s recommendation, “When you pray in worship you seem to say the right phrases and words for talking to God.”  The young man continued, “So I am wondering, could you pray for my marriage.”  I did pray with him, asking for God to intervene and restore his marriage.  A few months later I learned that his divorce was finalized.

I remember that story not so much for the outcome but for that recommendation (and my reaction) based on my public prayers in worship.  As a pastor I am often asked to pray in public setting and I normally comply with my best words and ideas for addressing God.  Recently I prayed at the dedication of new fire station and felt honored to be part of a simple civic ceremony.  Yet, as the years go by, I wonder if all my words are becoming more of a barrier than a bridge to communion with the Divine Mystery that we so easily call God.

The barrier question is definitely part of my personal devotion.  For many years I have kept a spiritual journal, pouring out my thoughts, feeling and concerns to God on the written pages.  At times these words helped me come to some clarity in my relationship with God, yet often the writing just seem to stir up the dirt and garbage inside, like shaking a jar of glacial river water and seeing all the silt swirling around in the jar.  It is only when one sets the jar of river water aside and allows the glacial silt to settle does the water become clear.  That has been my discovery with silent contemplative prayer.  I need to stop the swirling words and allow the sheer silence of God to speak (I Kings 19:12).

I have learned that I am not alone. In his book. Without Buddha I could not be a Christian, Paul Knitter, a Roman Catholic theologian, writes,

So often in Christian liturgies I find myself gasping for breath because I am suffocating on words!  Christian prayer, especially liturgy, is so verbose.  . . . God is Mystery and must remain so — the unknown part of God is much, much larger than the known part we are expressing in our prayers and services.  Our words don’t seem to respect that Mystery not just in their quantity but in their quality. . . .  Words are not only always inadequate in expressing the Divine Mystery, but they can actually be impediments to experiencing the Divine Mystery. . . .  In my own personal practice of prayer I have grown to feel the need for silence.” ( page 136)

Paul Knitter is not alone.  Ruth Haley Barton, an evangelical Protestant, writes in Invitation to Solitude and Silence.

In silence we begin to recognize that a lot of our God-talk is like the finger that points to the moon. The finger that points to the moon is not the moon.  Pointing to the moon, talking about the moon, involving ourselves in study and explanation about how the light of the moon is generated is not the same thing as sitting in moonlight.  It is the same with God. Our words about God are the not Reality itself.   They are only the finger pointing to the moon. In silence we give in the fact that our words can never contain God or adequately describe our experiences with God.  When we give in to the exhaustion that comes from trying to put everything into words and mental concepts, we give our mind permission to just stop. We give ourselves over to the experience of the Reality itself (page 75).

Enough words for today.   May I recommend that you seek some silence for your soul.

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Mountain Voices

Elijah, in a spiritual funk, ran away from Queen Jezebel to the mountain of God. Called Horeb by the northern tribes of Israel, it is the same mountain where Moses received the 10 commandments and saw the back side of God (Exodus 33). Moses had hid in a cleft in the rock when God passed by and scholars think it was this cleft or cave to which Elijah ran.  In this high place God was sure to meet him (I Kings 19).

Israel is a hilly country, with deep valley and high craggy peaks. The high places were often used for worship, whether for idols or for the Lord. Solomon’s Temple was built on Mt. Zion. Elijah confronted the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Jesus preached his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5).  The most significant high place was a hill outside Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified.

Atop Hallett Peak in RMNP

Mountains have always been associated with holiness and transcendence. They reach towards the heavens and can give a person a unique perspective on the world. I have been drawn to mountain peaks since boyhood, looking up at either Mt. Angeles or Mt. Rainier. Last summer I climbed Hallett Peak in Colorado as a kind of spiritual exercise in prayer.

But as Elijah discovered, God is not restricted to mountain peaks. Though Elijah experienced a dramatic sequence of wind, earthquake and fire, God was not in the dramatic. It was in the sheer silence that followed where Elijah heard God speak. This silence can be found anywhere, in the deepest valley as well as the loftiest peak. We seek a holy space where the ears of our souls yearn for simple assuring voice of God. And “voice” may not be the right word, more like presence, peace, hope, like a mother’s calm shush that ease’s a baby cries. As a child of God, I still yearn for that quiet, assuring voice of God’s grace.

God’s “voice” gives us the assurance to carry on the journey. Elijah did not stay on the mountain, but turned around and went back to face Queen Jezebel. More on that tomorrow.

Lord Jesus, quiet my noisy life that I may hear your loving voice.