Tag Archives: stillness

Holy Silence and Candy Crush

One of my New Year’s Not-Exactly-Resolutions this year was to work on building quiet into my daily schedule.  Focused quiet, where I’m meditating on a Scripture or inspiring thought, maybe praying, maybe listening, maybe all of the above, but definitely being quiet.  I still think that’s important, but I have a feeling I should expand my original goal a little.

As I write, my daughter is upstairs in her room writing another chapter of her modern twist on a fairy tale.  (The last time I checked in, the princess was rescuing the prince and wasn’t sure if she actually wanted to go out with him at all.)  My son is lying on the couch icing his knee from an injury he got at Boy Scouts this morning, and reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Two Towers.”  I’ve been drinking a cup of tea and enjoying a rare non-working Saturday afternoon at home.  I’ve been alternately catching up on a favorite blog and playing Candy Crush, which isn’t your standard Bible study fare.

It’s not thought-provoking Biblical exegesis or anything like it.  The blog I’m reading makes me laugh and think, but it’s not like I’m plowing through Spurgeon’s sermons or a commentary on the Petrine epistles.  I’m not praying (other than a quick word sent upward if something pops up in my news feed that I think God should have a little friendly reminder about).  I’m not searching my soul, but I really could use another one of those striped/wrapped candy combos, because this level is kicking my butt.

Is this what the Friends tradition would generally consider “holy silence”, that quiet stillness that centers on listening for the voice of God?  Nope.  Do I need it?  Heck yeah.

I can’t even remember the last non-midnight time that both children were quiet, I wasn’t answering work emails, and there was no music playing or Netflix running somewhere in the house.  Earlier this afternoon I sat at my kitchen table, looked out at the soft grey sky and occasional raindrops, wrapped both hands (both! the other hand wasn’t taking notes or clicking a mouse or pushing buttons on the washing machine!) around my mug of tea, and … did nothing.  NOTHING.  I looked out the window and noticed that there’s kind of a neat reflection of the porch railing across the wet boards of the porch floor, and heard my kitchen clock ticking, and enjoyed my warm tea, and that was it.

Maybe it’s not REAL study time, with notebooks and interlinear translations and highlighters.  But I think God lives in those quiet, domestic moments, and I’m going to see about finding a few more of them.

Jesus is My Fishing Buddy

If your childhood religious experience is anything like mine, the words “Sunday morning sermon” bring up images of a pulpit, a congregation, and a pastor or priest speaking from a prepared text.  If you grew up in a church with frequent missionary guest speakers, you may also remember squirming in the seats with your friends and watching the minutes tick past noon and into overtime.  There seemed to be something about spending a few decades in South America (where the congregation was unlikely to be wearing digital watches) that gave our guests a hazy recollection of North American concepts like the ladies imprisoned in the nursery, a roast in the oven at home, or kickoff time for the ball game.

No one would have dared interrupt them, though – the sermon was sacrosanct, or at least its continuity was.  Nobody would have interrupted ANYBODY behind the pulpit (or the music stand, if it was a Sunday night).  That kind of interaction was reserved for Wednesday night Bible study.  Even then, participants in the discussion tended to be the same people, with occasional brave words spoken by quieter adults or the rare teenager.

This, then, is why I nearly dropped my Bible the first time I sat in the wooden pew of my Quaker church and heard a church member casually interrupt the sermon with a related comment.  What was he doing?!  He was talking!  In church!  During the sermon!  Did I need to worry about stray lightning bolts?

No, as it turned out – the Quaker tradition of “that of God”, the belief that each person has in themselves some essential spark that is from God, is simply alive and well at my church.  Sure, the pastor preaches, but that doesn’t mean that somebody else might not have a darn good idea.  And that could be anybody else, regardless of gender, age, speaking ability, or education – they take that “everybody” part seriously.  So if a listener has a relevant thought, they raise their hand (or not) and toss a new idea into the ring.  It’s fascinating, liberating, and to my Baptist sensibilities, it’s the slightest bit rebellious.

I love it.

In a traditional Sunday morning sermon where the pastor speaks and the congregation listens, “What is Jesus to you?” is understood to be a rhetorical question.  The pastor would list a few things that Jesus might be, and then answer the question with a sermon on the nature and person of Christ.  But when my pastor asked this question, he actually wanted an answer, and he wasn’t going to start preaching again until we answered it.

The first answers were exactly what you’d expect from a group of seasoned Christians, and nearly everyone in the congregation tossed out an idea or two.  Jesus is my friend.  My hope.  My salvation.  My Lord.  My redeemer.  You could hear the wheels turning as people thought through the Psalms and came up with a few more.  Jesus is my Rock.  My deliverer.  My shield.  My shepherd.  We cast our minds to the New Testament.  Jesus is my Savior.  My intercessor.  My light.  My king.  Words were flying now, and they kept coming.  My joy.  My peace.  My teacher.  My rescuer.  My fishing buddy.

Wait, what?

Yep – it came from the quiet-spoken man over on the left – Jesus is my fishing buddy.  I heard a few chuckles, and I admit I smiled too.  And then I stopped, and I thought about it, and my soul said, YES.  

Sure, He’s my salvation and my hope and my peace.  He is my rock, my shield and (clap) my deliverer, my fortress and my strength.  (OK, so maybe not everybody knows that camp song, but I can’t say “rock” and “shield” without clapping.)  Jesus is all those things, and those things make great singalong tunes.  But I want Jesus to be my fishing buddy too, even though I don’t know how to fish.

I love the image of this taciturn Friend out on the lake in his boat, apparently alone, but actually in constant companionship with his God.  I can’t even call it praying, because you don’t pray to your fishing buddy – you just talk to him.  Or not.  Depends on if you’re in the mood for talking, or if you just want to hang out for a while.

I want that.  I want Jesus to ride around in the passenger seat of my grungy Civic, where I will not have to apologize for all the library books on the front seat because He’s just that good of a friend.  I want Him to sprawl out in the chair next to my sewing machine when I’m on a tear finishing summer jammies for the kids, just because He feels like being around me – we might talk a little, or He might chill out and read whatever novel He’s into right now, just enjoying being with His kid for a while.  When I decide I’m done with my work for the day and I go out on the porch to look at the sunset, I want Him to be there saying “Wow” right next to me.

I think that if Jesus is part of my everyday life like that, it will make Him easier to find in the holy silence of Sunday morning’s open worship.  If I’ve been listening to Him all week, I’ll be more likely to hear Him on Sundays.  Maybe it will make Sunday feel a little less set apart, but maybe, I think, I hope, it will end up making every day holy.

God Between the Notes

One of my favorite things about the Quaker tradition is the high value it places on silence.  Active silence, waiting silence, not just a passive stillness, is a recurring theme in Quaker writings and meetings.  “Be still and know” is one way of putting it.  I also like the more direct version:  “Shut up and listen.”

This evening I went to hear two of my musical colleagues in concert, a tenor and a pianist who are both unbelievably good at what they do.  The music, as expected, was stunning.  What surprised me tonight, though, was the quiet moments between all the sturm und drang of the poetry and wild Late Romantic harmonies flying through the air.

My friend, the tenor, has a lovely soaring voice that can carry with apparent ease over an orchestra.  My former teacher, the pianist, is barely taller than I am, but he can wrestle huge and powerful sounds out of the marvelous Steinway in the university’s main performance hall.  All of that big and wonderful sound was in evidence tonight, but there were also many instances of quietness and stillness that were somehow even more compelling.

Listening to that astounding voice fading into near-silence, but still floating high above the barely-there tones of the piano, the divine seems not so far away.  People often use terms like “magical” to describe this kind of music, but tonight it occurred to me that “holy” is at least as true.  I sat there, barely breathing, as the pianist’s hands hovered over the keys, reaching down to delicately draw each note from the instrument and drop it into the echoing silence.

I think God lives in those echoes.  We make our human noise, and we make it as best we can, and then in that silent, listening stillness, we hear our voices and the work of our hands come back to us, both less and more than they were when we sent them out.

The musical term for a silence within the music is a “rest”.  God lives in the rests, as much as in the music, if I can just hold still long enough to hear him.

Shhhh.

Silent.

Quiet.

Still.

Peaceful.

Not synonyms, although there is quite a bit of overlap to their meanings.  I am finding that not-talking is not the same as quiet, and that silence is no guarantee of stillness.

I come from a rich tradition of words – beautifully crafted, mentally stimulating, deeply expressive words.  Words to explain, to clarify, to enlighten, but also words to shape, to influence, to steer.  Sometimes words that obscure, words that camouflage, words that sanitize.  And when the evangelical movement is having a bad week, its strength is its weakness, and this facility with words becomes weaponized – barbs and rebuttals and shotgun blasts of language that leave gaping holes in targets and observers alike.

Let me be clear – I don’t want to cut myself off from this tradition.  As long as I have mental capacity and breath in my body, that breath will be voiced in words that make sense.  I simply am not wired for “God is good, God is great, Hallelujah (repeat 47 times)” – I am wired for words.

I think, though, that I might do well to take a cue from my musical life, where the rests are nearly as important as the notes.  If there is no silence, the notes quickly become a barrage of noise.  The quiet passages are necessary for the loud ones to be appreciated, and the softer melodies have beauty all their own.

I need this quiet.  I have come from so many years of noise – church services where I am cowed into unresponsiveness because of the deliberately constant noise.  (God forbid there be “dead air” on a Sunday morning.)  My “quiet times”, not too surprisingly, have come to reflect this constant motion, and my prayers and reading are so full of words that there is no space left for listening.

I want to find out what is in the silences, and perhaps more importantly, what is not.  I need stillness more than I need words sometimes.  Now if only I can get myself to stop talking…

Echoes of Mercy, Whispers of Love

One of my favorite things about exploring the concept of sacramental living is that all of a sudden, God is everywhere.  Not just in the usual way of being everywhere at all times – I can see him all over the place now.  Strange places, like in novels and on back roads and in cups of hot tea.  (Not literally IN my cup of tea – although if I’m going to take the omnipresence thing seriously, I guess he kind of is, so I’ll just let you work out your own theology on that one.)

Tonight I heard echoes of God in my rehearsal for a classical concert on Sunday.  I’ve worked with the mezzo-soprano many times before, so she’s used to my ability to follow a soloist, bending my musical interpretation in that dance of give-and-take that all good music should be.  The viola player has heard me play, but we’ve never performed together.  He is phenomenal, to the point that he scares me a little, and I was nervous about working with him.

Then he drops this compliment on me.  (I’ll give it to you verbatim, and then I’ll translate.)  He says to my singer friend, while eyeing me, “She’s really good at that, the [he sways in place for a second, waving his hands back and forth with his viola tucked under his arm] – you know, instead of counting.”  If you don’t speak Musician, that probably didn’t impress you as much as it did me, so here it is in normal-person English:  “She knows when to follow and when to take the lead, and she values the line of the music more than staying precisely on tempo.”

Coming from the principal violist of the local symphony, who is not generally known for scattering compliments around, that completely made my day.  I appreciated it partly because I was so relieved that it had gone well, but also because that is one of my core values as a musician.  All of my professional piano playing is with other musicians, and I want that flexibility to be a hallmark of my playing.  It’s important to me that people be able to play the way they want to play, without having to fight me for it.

I’d never heard it phrased that way, though:  “Instead of counting.”  When I thought about it, I realized he was right.  Once I’ve learned a piece well enough that I can keep half my attention on the other performer instead of my own hands, I’m not really thinking about “ONE-two-three-four” any more – I’m hearing lines and shapes and tone colors, making the music dance and bend, never quite the same as the last time.  When we reach the end of a piece and we have to play the last few notes together, I really don’t care how many beats Brahms said to play them – I care about these three notes with this violist at this performance, and if that turns out to be 3.4 beats instead of 3, that is fine.  If we decide that it just needs to hang there until he runs out of bow, even better!  (That’s what we settled on, incidentally.)

As I drove home from rehearsal, the words “instead of counting” kept rolling around in my head, and eventually I remembered where I’d heard them.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

Love doesn’t count.  Love bends and flexes and dances, so that this love for this child, this friend, this hurting colleague or joyful neighbor or hungry stranger, is exactly as it’s meant to be at this moment.

Count less.  Listen more.  Find God where you least expect him.

Go To Sleep, Brain!

Be still and cool
in thy own mind and spirit
from thy own thoughts,
and…thou mayest receive
God’s strength to allay
all blusterings, storms, and tempests.
                 — George Fox, 1658

At 9:30 on a Tuesday morning when the kids are at school, I don’t have to be at work for a couple more hours, and I’m savoring the quietness in my rocking chair with a cup of tea, I ROCK at being still and cool.  When it’s almost midnight and my brain’s keeping me awake, not so much.

The blusterings, storms and tempests are no joke.  Everybody’s got some version of them, and they come and go with distressing regularity.  But I think it’s telling that Fox starts out with the encouragement to be still and cool “from thy own mind.”  Not in thy mind, from thy mind. The worst noise comes from inside, not outside.

I can pretty much order anything else I want at midnight.  I can get pizza delivered.  I can order a Princess Leia costume on Ebay.  I can sit right in my own room and pick up a handheld battery-powered device and access THE ENTIRE INTERNET, including pulling up any episode of the original series of Star Trek to watch it in the middle of the night.  Google’s not helping me out here, though … I need stillness on demand!

At Peace With All Men

This year I rashly announced on Facebook that my New Year’s Resolution was as follows:  “So far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.”

I wasn’t counting on getting nine days into the New Year and having a conversation that made twenty years’ worth of hurts (that were supposed to be just faint scars by now, dang it!) come slinking back in again. The Bad Bee part of me wants to list them all, along with all the pithy rejoinders and profound insights I wish I’d had the nerve to say when they all happened.  Rebuttal!  Unassailable logic!  Pow! Pow! Pow!

And then Good Bee (see Rom. 7:21-25 for a more official version of Good Bee and Bad Bee) waves her hand and says, “Um … hey?  Peace toward all men, and all that?”

Bad Bee says, “But, but, how can I be at peace with someone who’s WRONG?”

Good Bee says, “Er … do you remember that one story with the Roman soldiers and the Pharisees and that whole mess?”

Bad Bee says, “Well yes, but I’m not THE SON OF GOD, for Pete’s sake.  And I’m, y’know, RIGHT!”

Good Bee says, “Tea.  Hot tea.  Then Philippians.  And maybe that Quaker devotional book you won’t shut up about.  NOW.”

And I, good and bad both, sigh and make a pot of tea and open Philippians.  I haven’t even gotten to the good bit in chapter 2 about humility when I am pinned to my chair by this verse, written by a man who is in jail – not just heartachy, IN JAIL:  “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.”

This verse is still simmering as I read through my Quaker devotional book in the section on sorrow.  Hannah Whitall Smith wrote to her friend Priscilla Mounsey 130-some years ago:  “Thy circumstances are lonely, but thy loneliness of spirit does not come from these, it is the loneliness of humanity.  Therefore, nothing but God can satisfy it.”

I close my eyes and let these words shift around in my mind, and I’m surprised to discover that the hurt of my heart keeps my mind focused, almost completely free of its usual “oh look a chicken” tangents.  The thought that keeps surfacing from the angry, frustrated fog is that there are two kinds of loneliness, and both are very real but easily mistaken for each other.

We do need people.  Community is important, and there are times when it is somehow always just beyond our reach.  This is normal.  But there is a separate loneliness, where we are aching for community – communion, perhaps – with God.  We need a closeness that human words and bodies and thoughts simply can’t achieve, and we ache for Him.  This is normal too.

The problem arises when we confuse them.  Relying on people, burying our heads in noise and meetings and play dates, can result in a peculiarly surrounded loneliness, if that core spot reserved for God is not filled.  But relying only on God, when maybe we need to get out of our chairs and off our laptops and find a human with real ears, can leave us wondering why God isn’t enough – when He is probably sitting right beside us saying, “I AM enough! Now go call Jen!”

And now, in the midst of all these percolating thoughts, up bubbles my verse from before, and I realize that my quarrel isn’t really with the man who flippantly dismissed my pain by rebuking me for not having more friends.  Would I have liked more friends in my dark valley?  You bet.  Was it my fault for not having them?  Hard to say.  Do I want him to understand it from my perspective?  Well, Bad Bee does, which is why she’s not allowed to talk right now.

The real problem is not just with one man, or even one church.  It is with the idea that the best defense is to hit the person who is suffering, and this is everywhere.  I can’t fix this by myself, and I don’t intend to try.  What I do plan to do, though, is ask myself this question every time these old hurts float up again:  “Can this hurt, this pain, this memory be used for the greater progress of the gospel?”

And already, in the still small corners of my mind, I can hear a quiet maternal voice whispering, “Yes, My daughter.  I can use it.”