I’D SAY YES, GOD . . .
DISCERNING GOD IN SILENCE AND SOLITUDE
(Part 1 in a preaching series based on Nancy Reeves’ book
I’d Say Yes, God, If I Knew What You Wanted)
Overwhelmed. Distracted. Anxious. Unable to cope. These are ways many people describe their state of mind. They say: “it’s a grind,” there’s no relief,” I can’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.” Quest News Service reported recently that “it took from the time of Jesus to the time of Leonardo Da Vinci for one doubling of knowledge. The next doubling of knowledge was completed before the American Revolution, the next one by 1900, the next one by 1950, the next one by 1960. …. Now knowledge is doubling every eighteen months.” How often that doubling is now occurring is up for debate, but point taken in any case. There is so much noise in our world, and so many distractions and sources of stress and stimulation, that on a daily basis, we are overloading our mental circuits with information and images and impressions to the degree that it becomes almost impossible to sort out and make any sense of anything, and the result is there is no unifying and coordinating vision for our lives. We don’t know who we really are or why we’re here. Life doesn’t make sense.
The poet Carl Sandburg said: “It is necessary … to go away by [your]self … to sit on a rock … and ask, ‘Who am I, where have I been, and where am I going?’”
This is a very good description of what Jesus was doing in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout history, many people seem to have found themselves, and become much more valuable to the human community, by being apart for extended periods of time – by spending time in silence and solitude.
For many, perhaps their worst fear is being alone. We are afraid of silence the way some generations used to be afraid of the dark. We think we can’t survive without a constant source of noise, whether TV or radio or iPod. People risk (and sometimes lose) their lives getting in one more text whether behind the wheel of a car or walking across a busy intersection, because they are terrified of becoming disconnected. From what? And we wonder why we’re living in such a manic world, and why people seem so disagreeable and difficult!
St Paul says, “the word is near you,” but we can’t hear it through all the noise. As Meister Eckhart said, “It is not God who is absent – it is we who have gone off for a stroll.” If Eckhart lived today, not 800 years ago, he might have added, “so pull out the ear plugs and maybe you’ll hear something!”
The lunacy of the texting fad reveals the sad fact that we’re disconnected from God (and ourselves) and connected in a compulsive and addictive way to other people. Yet ironically, as Jesus reveals to us, it is in the desert that we realize that we aren’t actually alone. It is only in places where there are no distractions that we can get to a deeper place where the Spirit in us can actually make contact with the Holy Spirit and thus with all creation. Ironically it is by choosing to become disconnected that we re-connect with the Source which is the well-spring of all real life.
As Jesus reveals to us, it is in the desert that we learn that we do not live by bread alone. You can have all the outward aspects of your life securely in place and still live under a shadow of depression, fear, guilt and emptiness. In our materialistic society, we have been convinced that we can fix these feelings by adding more externals to our lives – more clothes, new make-up, different music, etc. But our lives just become more cluttered and complicated and confused.
We might think of people like Jacob, Elijah, or even Jonah – we might think of the Buddha or perhaps the Himalayan yogis– or the vision quests of Native people. By whatever means, each of us eventually has to stand apart, face inward, and wrestle with those inner forces, whether angelic or demonic, that push and pull us, so we can eventually emerge with a real sense of who we are. It is no small task to come to a point where we can say, as God does, and as Jesus eventually does: “I am.” But without that inner and lonely journey, many of us remain extensions of other people, or chained to our past, and we don’t offer our unique gifts because we’re afraid or because we don’t even know what those gifts are.
It stands to reason that you can’t really love your neighbour as yourself if you have no real sense of self. On p. 35 of her book, I’d Say Yes, God, If I Knew What You Wanted, Nancy Reeves talks about the “benefits of self-awareness” in trying to discern how we’re to operate in this world: “Writers in spirituality speak of our essence or “true self,” which is made in the image of God, and our “false self,” ego or personality, into which we have taken lies about our nature and woven them into attitude and behavior patterns. Choosing to live out of our essence means being willing to confront the mask we wear to please the world.” She then quotes Richard Rohr, who says “Our task in discernment is to sift through appearances and the many ambiguities of life situations, and from among the various alternatives, decisions, or choices, to discover where the truth is.”
“I’d say yes, God . . .” Nancy Reeves’ book reminds us right in the title that there is tension and hesitation around our relationship with God. There is an implied BUT in there – “I’d say yes, but …” and there are the usual excuses and conditions – one of which, as scripture points out in one of Jesus’ parables, is our perception that there is too much going on in our lives to be able to dedicate any real time to the quest for connection with God. We repeat the modern mantra “I’m too busy” – “I don’t have time” – and so we let the demands of the world eat up every moment of our day and every last ounce of our energy and attention, so even when we come to church, we are not very present.
But the evidence is in that those who do take the time, even relatively small amounts of time, to become centered, to meditate, or simply to be quiet for a while, experience amazing benefits. Major studies on meditation at places like Harvard University are now validating what the Church has always known. We have to remember that we are not just victims or pawns. We are making a choice to run around frantically trying to do everything at once, and it is only we who can choose to stop.
We need creative options, and yet in our time those very options (like meditation, contemplation, and worship) are seen as time-wasters, boring, useless. We don’t even know how to sleep properly any more.
People sometimes say to me “That was a great service!” as a way of thanking me, and while I appreciate the feedback, the reality is that it is a “good” service when you have brought enough of yourself to offer that you make some real connections. Again, it is not God who is absent – the truth is that the Spirit is present the entire time, patiently waiting for you to really show up. Good liturgy happens when enough people are truly open and present enough that the Spirit can really begin to move among us. We need to return to an attitude which sees worship as an essential and life-giving spiritual practice, and give it the attention it deserves.
One of the reasons we invite people to the desert in Lent is that so much of our Christian practice is a thin layer on the outer surface of our lives, and so some real time in contemplation obliges us to search deeper, to listen more intently, to learn how to be still, and come to know who God really is.
If we consent to it, God will lead us to a place of “still water,” as the 23rd Psalm says, and the Spirit will restore our souls, so we become able to face into the darkest and most threatening situations in our lives with a sense of confidence and trust – even more, the KNOWLEDGE – that God is with us.
So we need time in our lives to let the muddy water settle, so that clarity might begin to emerge; we need time to be apart from all the external voices, and we need to learn to listen for “the still, small voice of God,” or, as another translation puts it: “the sound of sheer silence.” Even keeping the TV and radio and the IPod and the smart phone texting off for a day can be a good start toward being able to check in with your inner self and not be so caught up in the web of chaos and meaningless activity that threatens to destroy us.
Jesus ultimately came to a point where he was able to identify completely with the truth (“I am the way, the truth and the life”), and it happened because he had the courage to probe through the false and misleading choices before him in order to become the person he was called to be.
As the popular song says “I’ve got to get away ….” I am a big believer in retreats. Many people have found new meaning and direction through retreats – have come back to church from events like Cursillo and said they now comprehend what worship is about. The meditation I read to you this morning comes from an Ira Progoff intensive journaling retreat that I attended about 35 years ago. Its influence has been profound and long-lasting. Nancy Reeves’ book points us in that direction as a source of healing.
Blaise Pascal said “All of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Few of us have the courage to simply walk off into the wilderness. But we don’t need to go to exotic or isolated places – the solitude and silence and space we need are usually very close at hand. Jesus said to his followers simply, “Go into your room and close the door.” But sometimes people need some structure and encouragement in order to form a practice, so going to a retreat centre and receiving some guidance from an experienced retreat leader can be a good incentive. As Reeves points out, there is a huge variety of types of retreats available, including theme retreats, couple’s retreats, Ignatian retreats, and also a great variety of places where retreat is offered.
How do we discern the way forward for St John’s? How do we know where we’re going?
To come back to Sandburg, let’s sit on a rock (figuratively) and let’s ask ourselves: “Who are we, where have we been, and where are we going?” Let’s try to BE with Jesus in the wilderness for at least an hour (after all, he spent 40 days there), and see what might begin to unfold.
I think it’s important to be actively trying to discern what we are meant to do, and that means first of all trusting that it is possible to connect in a more direct and experiential way with the living God. It will also mean learning to be still and silent, and learning to listen – listen deeper – much deeper — than we are used to listening, in our worship, in our prayer and meditation, in our encounters with each other.
It will mean encouraging reflective and contemplative practices, teaching and mentoring people about prayer and meditation, offering retreats, experiential worship, and it will mean being willing to act in faith, as we seek to become the spiritual centre and faith community we are meant to be.
If we integrate that approach into our practices and priorities I trust that the One who has always guided people who truly seek him will be guiding us as well.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL appointed readings for Lent 1:
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.
When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot. Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Romans 10:8b-13 “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Luke 4:1-13 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.