It's funny the things we remember. It is hard to say why some things stay and others are lost in the passage of time. A face, a particular person's laugh, a thought, or an illustration. Some stay and others do not.
One idea that has stayed with me for over a decade is from a lecture I attended while at seminary. I listened to almost 500 hours of lectures that year but this one has remained in my memory.
Dr. Paul Williams was exploring creative and imaginative ways churches could minister to their cities and be agents of shalom on a grand scale. He suggested that perhaps churches should consider renting out all the advertisement space along stretches of busy commuter roads and leave them entirely blank. This would enable citizens to perform their regular commute without a barrage of advertisements and words and would instead encourage a refuge of peace and quiet in their lives.
This idea has always stuck with me. And I think about it every now and again, especially when I feel weary of the noise in our wordy world .
I don't know about you but my life has a lot of words in it. My children are at a very talkative and inquisitive age - this involves a lot of listening to, deciphering, and concentrating on words and also responding. I text and post and craft captions on social media. I catch up with friends on the phone, I make phone calls to book appointments, I am polite and chatty with the cashier at the grocery store or the bank teller or the piano teacher, I make both meaningful talk and small talk at church and kid's clubs events. I let go the occasional rant or talk through my emotions with those close to me. And then there are all the signs, advertisements or newspaper and magazine headlines that I encounter.
Lots of words. Lots of static. Lots of noise.
By the end of the day I feel all emptied out - specifically of words. Sometimes, when it comes to adult only time at the end of the day - I have very little to say. And it's not that I do not have things on my mind to share or feelings inside but I just do not want to talk anymore.
Recently, more so than usual, I have been feeling empty of words. I sat down to write a blog and there was just nothing inside to write from. No words, no new ideas, nothing.
This was surprising as I normally have lots of thought and opinions about almost everything. And as I examined this empty feeling I was reminded of words written by Henri Nouwen in his book, "The Way of the Heart". Nouwen uses the image of a steam bath to describe the life of the Spirit within us. The only way to keep a steam bath hot is to keep the door shut and every time the door opens heat will escape and the fire will eventually go out if you are not careful. And so it with us- each time we speak we open the door to the Spirit’s inner fire and only through regular silence can you hope to stoke our fire.
Nouwen, in 1981, writes that silence goes directly against our culture that places "sharing" among its most important virtues. He writes this before the internet, before social media, before cell phones and cell phones that have cameras. What a prophetic statement indeed - where now, 37 years later, "sharing" is a cultural phenomenon - how much more important and weighty are his words for our world today. He wrote that the culture we live in is one that believes that every emotion, thought, and inner stirring has to be shared. And this need to share every part of ourselves with many people is more compulsive that virtuous and "instead of creating community it tends to flatten out our lives together." It not only destroys community but also extinguishes the fire of the Spirit within us. The remedy to this ailment is silence - regular, disciplined silence.
As I re-read Nouwen's writings this past week, I felt deeply convicted and relieved. Convicted of how I had bought into this idea that everything I have ever thought or done needed to be shared. Convicted of how I was contributing to the "wordiness" of the world leaving myself weary and empty as a result. And I was equally relieved to be reminded that there was a way forward. For the sake of my own inner spiritual fire - I had to start closing some doors on my steam bath.
Over Lent I decided to close one particular steam bath door: social media. And while there is lots to say about the benefits of this particular expression of silence, I think what I learned is that silence is both for ourselves and for others. Carefully attending to our inner fire and practising silence brings wholeness to ourselves but it is also an outward ministry.
As I pursued silencing my social media involvement I spent more time reading, baking, and being outside and this also drew my children into these activities. I had more space at the end of the day to both listen and share with my husband. And while still drained at the end of the day, I was not as drained. Silence is not just for us but also for the those close to us and for the life of the world.
Nouwen writes, "Our first and foremost task is faithfully to care for the inward fire so that when it is really needed it can offer warmth and light to lost travellers." Words spoken out of a dying fire are often words lacking faith and hope that come from God. Words spoken from silence can be a true blessing to others as God does His work in their lives. Words that come from silence are words full of God's power and wisdom rather than the ramblings of our own hearts.
Would you like to be someone who speaks that timely word to a friend? Practice silence.
Would you like to be someone who speaks wise words to your children? Practice silence.
Would you like to have the opportunity to minister effectively to the world around you? Practice silence.
Henri Nouwen says that the ministry of silence leads others into silence. Dr. Paul Williams idea of leaving advertising space blank comes from the same vein. If the church knows and loves the value of resting in silence with God, then we will desire to create silent spaces like this for others in a wordy world. Thus leading them into their own silence with God where they can hear and know God. Silence is indeed a ministry beyond ourselves.
The irony of writing about my need to speak less on a blog is not lost on me. And I am in no way in a daily habit of silence and solitude. But I hope to be and I want to be and I am trying. I hope that I can also point others in the direction of Jesus.
I have wondered if it might be better to stop writing my blog all together. But God is not against words and speaking - He speaks to us and Jesus is referred to as The Word of God. Silence is more about developing a wisdom around how and where we spend our words.
So, what does it look like to seek out silence for ourselves and lead others into silence in our loud world? I have a feeling that if you have read this far - there is a good chance you have an inkling of at least one way you could create this. And there is a good chance that whatever practice you might be thinking about will be counter cultural and people might think it’s weird. It will involve some sacrifice on your part and will most likely will feel uncomfortable and we need God given courage to accomplish these things. If you don't have any ideas - ask God. He is infinitely creative and wise in what will be best for your inner fire.
Silence for you might be abstaining or reducing your use of social media, or sitting with a candle for a period of time at the end of each day, or giving up your smartphone completely, going for long walks, or it might be adding the regular discipline of prayer and bible reading into your life. Perhaps it is creating a space in your backyard, garden, or home where others can come and be silent. Maybe it is seeking out a silent Christian retreat - though I would recommend that you always pursue lengths of silence under the guidance of a Christian spiritual director or Pastor.
I am using the word Christian deliberately in the last paragraph because I want to be clear that the silence of the triune God is not the same as the silence of other religious practices and we cannot play around in the areas that deal with our inner souls. We are looking for more of the life of the Spirit within us and so this is not seeking out "zen" moments or getting our brains to a place of being still and focusing on nothing. It has very little to do with ourselves and everything to do with a silent space FULL of the loving, warm, peaceful presence of the living God and His words to us by His Spirit.
I never cease to be amazed at how following Jesus requires a continual sifting, sorting, and purging of my life. The longer I walk with Jesus the more space needs to be made in my life for His Kingdom and His reign. But I know this - God is faithful and true to fill whatever space we make for Him in our life and He is longing to do so.
May you be blessed in your search of silence and may you, out of silence, have the opportunity to be an agent of God's ministry to the world.